Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yellow Lady's Slippers

Trilliums or lady’s-slippers, lady’s-slippers or trilliums – which are my favorite wildflowers? I’ve never been able to decide. But certainly one that’s near the top of the list is the orchid called yellow lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

In this area there were three populations of which I was aware, two in the Big Woods and one about 15 miles to the east in a large patch of woodland surrounded by farms and spreading development. Unfortunately, in the 40 years since I first saw them, two of the populations have disappeared. In both cases the habitat appears to be unchanged, but white-tailed deer seem to find the plants quite palatable and are probably the cause of the disappearance.

During a 1970s visit to the third population I counted 72 plants in bloom. They were accompanied by an uncounted number of plants that were not bearing flowers. A more recent trip to see those plants was cause for alarm, as there was but a handful of blooms and only a few non-blooming plants. This spring I went back, fearing that the plants would be gone. 

Happy day! There were 34 plants to be seen, 26 of which were in bloom –

This population of yellow-lady’s-slippers is (and has been since I first saw them) confined within a radius of about 150 feet in an old field that was abandoned during or shortly after World War I. The stonerows along the edges of the old field consist only of large stones, so the field was almost certainly not plowed, but was instead used to grow hay. The old field reverted to a forest of white pine, red maple and black birch with an understory of invasive Japanese barberry. Perhaps the thorny and unpalatable barberry has protected the lady’s-slippers from deer. 

What’s different about this small area of a much larger old field, or similar areas along the same hillside, that has made it hospitable for yellow lady’s-slippers? To human eyes it looks the same as many other acres – maybe it’s the soil’s pH or texture, the degree of shade, or mere chance, or … 

Here’s hoping that for years to come this population of yellow lady’s-slippers will be there to brighten the day of folks who come upon them.


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