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Showy Ladyslippers June 27 08

They’re easy to find provided you know what you’re looking for. A short walk down a public walking path through a fen on the south side of Middleville brings you right to them. If you’ve got a nature eye, you’ll recognize them immediately.

I’m talking about showy ladyslippers (Cypripedium reginae). Mid June through early July is the time when this crown jewel of Michigan’s native orchids blooms in the wetlands. It is aptly named. Growing up to three feet tall, this is among our state’s more spectacular wildflowers.

From the jewel-like twayblades and the diminutive, globally endangered nodding pogonia, to the tall, luminous spikes of the orange fringed orchid—from the striking, checkerboard leaves of the rattlesnake plantains to the leafless, saprophytic coral roots with their chestnut-brown flowers—wild orchids are a treasure of the Michigan outdoors. But they’re a treasure most of us are unfamiliar with, for a variety of reasons. Many of our native orchids don’t look particularly eye-catching or orchid-like; you’d walk past them without giving them a second glance, or even a first. Others, such as the dragon’s mouth and grass pink, are strikingly beautiful, but they grow in places most people normally don’t care to go. And many are so rare that your chances of finding them range from small to subatomic.

If the showy ladyslipper is guilty of any of the above, it’s the matter of living quarters. This is no shy, retreating plant; the Latin species name, reginae, means “queen,” and a queen it is, tall, stately, and unabashedly splendid. You’re not likely to overlook it if you happen upon it. Moreover, while all wild orchids are uncommon as a rule, the showy ladyslipper is not one of our rare species. The distribution map in Frederick Case’s Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region shows it occurring in fifty-three Michigan counties and two of our Great Lakes islands, and that is doubtless a conservative figure. However, few of its wetland homes are as benign as the Middleville fen, which is equipped with a trail that takes you right past the orchids. Usually, if you’re going to find this plant, you need to set out with that goal in mind, know your habitat, and be prepared to get your feet wet and dodge poison sumac.

Speaking of sumac, if you do find this ladyslipper and feel inclined to pick a few flowers for the vase on your kitchen table—don’t. Besides being illegal, harvesting this plant is liable to leave you with a rash similar to poison ivy. This queen of the wetlands is not without her defenses.

Photographs, on the other hand, are totally permissible. This photogenic plant is well worth the effort. It practically composes your pictures for you. The next screensaver image on your computer may be blooming right now on a lake shore near you.





Written by Dave.