by Pat Jaquith
The Mountain Lady’s Slipper, aka White Lady’s Slipper, is a striking sight, whether as a single stalk like this one or a in big clump. Although their very existence requires an amazing amount of chance and even the support of a fungal partner, they find a niche that works for them in our area. I visited this solitary plant at least once every month from June to October, 2022. Read on to watch its progress.
I have a Chipping Sparrow to thank for finding this plant in June, 2019. I was looking for some little bird that was trying to lure me away from its nest when I looked down to see what I was going to trip over and spotted this very orchid in the grass and shrubs. It was about 6″ tall, with two elliptical leaves with linear veins – just a baby. It needed to grow and store more nutrients before it would be ready to blossom. In 2020 when I stopped by to admire it, it had one very stunted little blossom just opening; on a subsequent visit I found that blossom had fallen off and its dry remains had fallen into a spider’s web attached to the lowest leaf. The following year, it produced two healthy-looking flowers. A second plant seemed to be just emerging from the ground nearby. I know of no other Mountain Lady’s Slipper closer than .5 mile.
This Mountain Lady’s Slipper has produced two capsules of seeds. In his book Engtagled Life , Merlin Sheldrake writes, “Dust seeds are the smallest plant seeds in the world.” Orchid seeds are “naked”, meaning there is no food to provide energy for germination. Orchids have their own mycorrhizal network; hyphae enter the dust seed and deliver nutrients that allow the seed to start to grow. The orchid is parasitic on the fungus, that is, it depends on the fungus to feed it for several years. When the plant starts to photosynthesize, it gives nutrients to the fungus, thus making their relationship symbiotic. Lady’s Slippers may take 10 years to reach the blossoming stage of their growth.