Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lady Slipper Lore

A revelation in my young life was my first glimpse of a Lady’s Slipper in the rich humus alongside a long-dead chestnut log in a shady cove of an Appalachian forest.

It was bright yellow with delicate leaves and it appeared to have come to where it was nestling from....from absolutely nowhere !

My fellow trout-killer, Ross Lloyd said, “Oh, yes, Bill. That’s a Moccasin Flower...It’s a kinda orchid, y’ know....”

Well, no... I didn’t know at all. And Ross would not let me take it as a treasure to give to my bride, Betts. He said the rhizomes were too rare.

“They’ve ‘bout been ‘stincted !” Ross exclaimed. “You jus’ need to bring her and show her.”

So, I did. This was in the 1950s, and as we tramped through the North Carolina, East Tennessee and North Georgia mountains, we saw quite a few more cypripedium.

First pink one we saw was in Whiteoak Bottoms, on the head of the Nantahala, when Betts ripped her new waders and was too waterlogged to fish, and she almost squished the specimen while she was divesting in the lee of a huge Hemlock. (That’s another tale.)

Nowadays, since I cannot see, and therefore no one invites me to a mountain trail-trek, I do not know how “rare” the beautiful terrestrial orchids are in my Beloved Appalachians, but I would not be surprised if someone who reads this finds or sees one.

There have been about fifty kinds of terrestrial (ground-bound) cypripedium in the world. They grow in cooler places, including Alaska, Lower Siberia and in the Himalayas, certainly.

Betts and I thought we had seen just about every Lady’s Slipper we could ever see. And, yes, she did collect one pink one and “press” it in our favorite botany book.

It was one that grew out by the edge of the road near our farm located where Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina meet. My four horses had broken out of my small pasture, and I was herding them home, bareback with halter only) after being roundly cursed by an old man with a cleft palate. (A Pow’ful Cussin’, I Swear!!!) The horses had damaged his Roas’n’ Ears Patch.

Anyway, I had things well in hand when I looked down to my left,off the dirt road and THERE !!, shining from a low spot near an old oak stump, just off the road, was a big, fat Lady’s Slipper orchid !

I marked the place with a pine branch, and raced to get Betts. We rode back–(saddled properly this time) and that was the “specimen” that got pressed. We just KNEW some of those budding Richard Petty boys would clip it or mash it sooner or later. So, we SALVAGED it.

But the most exciting thing that ever happened in our Lady’s Slipper history was when we camped out one evening at Rice Lake in Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi. We were “camping” in the back of our station wagon...(and a jolly romp it was, I can confide !)

Some Chippewa, well heeled and well oiled , occupied an adjacent area playing cards and drinking. They were pretty loud, but not exactly threatening. Still, we moved our station wagon several hundred feet along the trail, saw a table looming in the pitch dark and just parked there.

The next morning, when she slid out to make coffee, Betts shrieked. I though she...we..were being attacked.

“LOOK ! Look !” she giggled. And when I did, I saw a WHITE cypripedium, a ghostly pale, slightly veined, delicate bloom.

Well, we took pictures. I wrote a column about it for the Atlanta Constitution (never printed because the Outdoor report was...” NOT the place for botany or horticulture, no matter HOW wild !!!”

But we didn’t care. It crowned our young lives of looking.

And, did you know...that Lady’s Slipper was the State Flower of Minnesota !!!

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