Thursday, May 6, 2021

Lady's-slippers in a spring forest

Recent spring rains created swollen streams in Shawnee State Forest (Ohio) yesterday morning. I was down there early to meet John Howard and Cheryl Carpenter for a bit of "fishing". We were going to work these streams for various dace, darters and minnows for photography, but decided to defer that until lower water prevails.

Instead, we switched gears and went botanizing. The weather was perfect for plant photography. Overcast skies, and the previous night's rain had persisted into the morning, so everything was dripping with water and colors were richly saturated. For the most part, sunny skies (and wind!) are your enemy when shooting plants.

Plant subjects were plentiful - Shawnee hosts some 1,000 species of native plants - and we quickly immersed ourselves in finding rarities, and seeing lots of more common spring flowers along the way. I photographed far more subjects than I could ever post here, so I'll showcase some of the coolest plants in the eastern deciduous forest (and beyond): lady's-slippers.

A pair of stately Large Yellow Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium parviflorum, just perfect for photography. These are not especially common in Shawnee, although they are widely scattered throughout the forest and might be encountered almost anywhere.


A glance at the flowers reveals the source of the common name. Bumblebees often serve as pollinators. The gorgeous yellow blossoms are subtended by interesting twisted reddish sepals, and the overall effect is stunning.

Decidedly more common than the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper and sometimes forming sizable colonies is the Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. This dry ridgetop woodland was dotted with plants, creating a spectacular, slightly surreal vision.

The scientific name's specific epithet, acaule, refers to its growth habit. The stems are leafless, capped only by the terminal flower. Leafless stemmed plants are called acaulescent. Scroll back to the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper photos for an example of a caulescent, or leafy stemmed, plant.

A freshly emerged Pink Lady's-slipper flower, not yet fully developed and wet with rain.

But hey! What is this? I was excited to see not one, but two specimens of the white-flowered form of Pink Lady's-slipper. The snowy-white flowers are truly amazing, and arguably showier than the typical pink-flowered type. This variant has been named forma albiflorum, and it is quite rare.

Forma albiflorum, standing tall.

I never divulge rare orchid locations (or most ANY orchid locale), because the human desire to possess exotic things sometimes overrides ethics. A plant such as this could be a sitting duck if its spot were widely known. A sad fact about orchid poaching is that few if any of the purloined plants will survive. Orchids are exceptionally particular in regards to micro-niches, and much of their finicky nature regards specialized fungi. Plant them in the garden and you have doomed these elegant plants. They belong in the forests where they naturally occur.

Some years back, a perhaps well-intentioned person foolishly wrote a letter to the local paper extolling the virtues of the forest and its lady's-slippers. The writer encouraged people to go see them and listed specific locations.

A botanical slaughter ensued. Many plants were dug, and we can be sure that all soon died. One site that I knew of with dozens of pink slippers was decimated and has not come close to approaching its former grandeur, years later.

Cypripedium acaule, forma albiflorum, botanical magic.

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