Exploring The Last Green Valley: Lady’s slipper a beautiful forest addition
One recent morning, I ventured over to Old Furnace State Park in Killingly for a hike. The park is less than 10 miles from my house and is one of my preferred locations for a forest ramble.
Old Furnace has an excellent trail network. I prefer the less traveled orange blaze trail, which turns west from the park entrance and then up the sloping terrain to the top of Half Hill. The eastward view from the top of the steep cliffs is one of the best in The Last Green Valley.
The trail starts through a thick stand of mostly Eastern hemlock and white pines. The stately conifers provide cooling shade I appreciate on a warm spring morning. As the trail climbs in elevation its winding course leads into a classic Southern New England mix of conifers and then deciduous oaks, maple, hickory and birch.
It was here I spotted a single pink lady’s slipper by the side of the trail. I looked around to see if others had rooted nearby but found only this single lonely orchid, waiting patiently for the admiring looks of passing hikers.
I always stop to appreciate and look closely at our most popular wild orchid Cyprideum acaule, with its long green stem and single pink, inflated, slipper-like lip petal. I snapped a few pictures, and moved along hoping others would see it, enjoy it, and most importantly not pick it.
I am lucky to have seen lady’s slippers on many occasions, usually in forest or wooded habitat similar to Old Furnace State Park. I grew up in a woodsy neighborhood and our house situated at the dead-end of the road was surrounded by trees. Luckily for me, the woods had many lady’s slipper plants. I remember one spot we would visit each spring to count the 20 or more clustered together near a large rock with a towering Eastern hemlock overhead. My brother aptly named it Lady’s Slipper Rock. It may very well have been the first wild plant I could identify, and experience tells me this is the time of year to find them.
Seeing that lady’s slipper at Old Furnace State Park got me looking up information on this pretty forest dweller. My Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers was helpful and I found it listed other species of lady’s slippers – ram’s-head lady’s slipper, yellow lady’s slipper and showy lady’s slipper.
An internet search turned up the North American Orchid Conservation Center and their website Go Orchids. Here is what I discovered from this very informative source.
Cypripedium acaule, commonly called Pink Lady’s Slipper or Moccasin Flower, is widely distributed across the Eastern United States and eastern to central Canada, from Alabama to the Northwest Territories. It produces two basal leaves and a solitary flower.
The flower of the orchid, also called a lip, is a distinctively inflated pouch, magenta to white, often light pink with darker pink veins; a slit with inwardly rolled edges marks the front of the petal. It is found in forests and woodlands, often near pines or conifers, and occasionally in bogs or swamps.
The pink lady’s slipper is considered globally secure and is common throughout much of its range. It does, however, exhibit persistently low reproductive rates, caused in part by erratic flowering and infrequent pollination.
This orchid, like most lady’s slippers, attracts pollinators through deception. Bees such as several species of bumble bees are lured into the pouch by the bright color and sweet scent of the flower. Inside, they find no reward but are trapped with a single exit. Hairs lead to a pair of openings, one beneath each pollen mass.
As the bee crawls toward the opening, it rubs against the stigma and any pollen it is carrying pollinates the flower. Finally, as it squeezes out of the flower, new pollen is pressed on to the bee to be carried to the next plant. Bees quickly learn from this experience and soon avoid these flowers which accounts for low pollination rates for this orchid.
I also looked up lady’s slippers with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and found three types of lady’s slippers listed in the endangered or species of special concern list. Of special concern is the ram’s-head lady’s slipper (which is also considered extirpated from Connecticut), and the yellow lady’s slipper. The showy lady’s slipper is considered endangered.
Given the information provided by the DEEP and the North American Orchid Conservation Center it is evident that lady’s slippers should not be picked when discovered, but enjoyed, photographed and left to hopefully attract a passing bumble bee for pollination.
My forest and field rambles always provide new sights, delights and insights. I always return home invigorated and usually full of questions. And so, too, was it with my recent experience at Old Furnace State Park and the lonely lady’s slipper patiently waiting for a passing bumble bee.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me as we discover the region’s special places, cultural resources and natural wonders.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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