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Read More Articles About: Wildflower Families
( Originally Published 1908 )
The Orchids are perhaps the most interesting of all the flowering plants. They are perennials which are dependent to an extraordinary degree upon insects for the carrying of the pollen from flower to flower. The structure of the blossom is somewhat complicated and it is followed by the curious seed pod in which there is an enormous number of very minute seeds. In nearly all the Orchids there is a labellum or lip which forms, as a rule, the most conspicuous feature of the flower. It is especially striking in the case of our common Ladies'-slippers.
PINK LADY'S-SLIPPER. Of all the wild flow-ers of June none is more interesting than the Pink Lady's-slipper which over a wide territory in the eastern states is frequently abundant. No matter how often you see it it never becomes commonplace, having to an extraordinary degree the peculiar charm of the aristocratic Orchid family to which it belongs. It seems rather a fitting habitation for elves and fairies than an ordinary denizen of the work-a-day world.
The few other Lady's-slippers to be found in the United States are inhabitants of deep swamps and secluded woods where very few people ever find them, but this pink species is less exclusive in its choice of an abiding place. In pine woods, in beech and oak woods, in swamps and bogs these are the places where it grows. On dry uplands or wet lowlands it seems equally at home, the two green leaves appearing above the brown pine needles or the sphagnum moss with equal ease, and bearing between them the stalk tipped with the curious bud that develops into the still more curious blossom. In this part the petals are developed into a strange pouch-like labellum or lip which gives the flower its chief display. In the top of the labellum is an opening that leads to the large cavity within, the opening being arranged something like those rat-traps in which the rat goes in through an opening in the top through which he cannot return.
The whole curious mechanism of the Lady's-slipper blossom has to do with the visits of small bees which bring about the fertilization of the tiny ovules through the pollen carried from other flowers. The bee enters the opening in the lip and finds itself in the large chamber from which it can only escape through one of two small holes at the upper end of the flower. To reach these the bee walks upward, but before it escapes it must rub its back against the stigma of the blossom, in so doing covering it with any pollen that was upon the bee's back, and then against the anther which is covered with viscid pollen that is smeared upon the back of the bee. Thus it goes to the next flower laden with a new supply of the fertilizing pollen.
You may watch these Lady's-slippers many an hour perhaps without seeing any of the bees at work. But they come occasionally, and the flow-ers wait patiently, often remaining in good condition nearly a fortnight if no bee arrives.
Sometimes a queen bumble-bee gets into the trap. And for her it is very likely to be a death-trap. The holes beneath the anthers are too small for her to pass through, so that she is likely to be held a prisoner until she dies. Several times I have known flowers to be found with such unfortunate victims inside. One will sometimes find, though very rarely, one of these Lady's-slippers almost white in color—a strange variation, such as is often found in many other plants.
There is a great temptation to gather these flowers in greater numbers than are needed for any reasonable decoration. A few of them in a simple jar are really more effective than a mass, and there is then a chance for the blossoms to remain in the woods in future years, a joy to all beholders.
SHOWY LADY'S-SLIPPER. While the finding of the Pink Lady's-slippers may readily be an every-day occurrence with the nature-lover in many of the eastern states, a discovery of almost any of the other species marks for most of us a red-letter day. For these other species are becoming more and more rare and are seldom seen even by those who are much in the woods. The beautiful Showy Lady's-slipper is the largest of our native species. It inhabits deep swamps, generally those secluded and remote from human habitation. The single large white blossom is rendered conspicuously beautiful by the wine-red hue which suffuses much of the pouch-like labellum.
YELLOW LADY'S-SLIPPERS. We have two native species of Yellow Lady's-slippers, which both grow in swampy regions and bear a general resemblance to each other, although they differ much in size. One is called the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper and the other the Small Yellow Lady's-slipper. Both are wonderfully beautiful and have much the same contrivances for effecting cross-pollination that the Moccasin-flower has. Apparently they are chiefly pollenized by small bees.
RAM'S-HEAD LADY'S-SLIPPER. Another Lady's-slipper is the curious Ram's-head species, which is one of the rarest and most interesting of the group. It seems to be less known than. any of the others and has been seen in its native haunts by very few people. "I strongly suspect," writes Mr. Baldwin, in his interesting Orchids of New England, "that some elf, having been refused a night's lodging in the cradle of the Pink Lady's-slipper and faring no better on application to a Yellow Lady's-slipper, originated the pert little Ram's-head as a caricature of both."
Other members of the beautiful family of Orchids also bloom in early summer. In bogs and swamps the slender stems of Pogonia hold erect the graceful pink-red blossoms, while not far away perhaps one may find the magenta-red blossoms of Calopogon with its curiously bearded . lip. And in damp woods as well as along the margins of the swamps one may find the lovely flower-stems of the various Fringed Orchids, of which the large Purple-fringed Orchis is one of the most abundant.
LADIES TRESSES. During August and September the wet meadows often abound with the beautiful white spires of the Nodding Ladies' Tresses, another plant of the Orchid family. Several species are widely distributed east of the Mississippi river, extending north as far as Nova Scotia and south as far as the Mexican Gulf. The leaves are long and slender, suggestive of blades of grass, while the rather small white flowers are spirally arranged in three rows on the sides toward the upper end of the flower stalk which averages about a foot in height. These flowers are visited by bees, which begin at the bottom of the spiral and work upward. They effect the pollination of the blossoms through one of the curious contrivances for which the Orchid family is famous. The pollen is in a mass which you may see if you will insert the point of a lead pencil into the flower and then withdraw it. The delicate odor of the flowers as been celebrated by Emily Shaw Forman in these lines :
Fragrance like thine no rose of June can yield;