Lady-Slipper Orchids: Royalty of the Forest

In late spring, sac-like blooms brighten New England woods

For a frantic weekend gardener, it's a comfort to know that some flowers don't need to be coaxed, coddled, weeded, and mulched to be happy. Native wildflowers and woodland plants do very well on their own, thank you, under the right conditions. Parks, wooded lots, open fields, and boggy areas host splendid displays of native plants that have never felt the business end of a hoe.

The queen of late-spring wildflowers is the lady-slipper, a New England native orchid that is quite rare and very distinguished. Pockets of gently nodding sac-like flowers brighten forest floors and befuddle pollinators. The blooms contain no nectar to attract bees. Instead, the plant relies on insects that don't know better to bumble their way inside and become covered with pollen. Then it's up to the confused bug to stumble into another lady-slipper in the same manner. Is it any wonder these plants are rare?

As with most royals, lady-slippers are particular in their choice of habitat: They grow best in oak and pine forests and require close companionship with a soil fungus. The fungus infiltrates the orchid's roots and makes nutrient absorption possible for both itself and her ladyship - a very satisfactory arrangement.

Lady-slippers should be respected in the wild and not moved or touched. Their bloom time is brief - generally a 10-day to two-week period from around late May to very early June. The magazine Natural History says the pink lady-slipper is making a comeback in Massachusetts forests, but the surest place to see it is Garden in the Woods, a 45-acre botanical garden maintained by the New England Wildflower Society, in Framingham, Mass.

Along with lady-slippers, Garden in the Woods is home to nearly 1,600 kinds of plants, including 200 rare or endangered species. The garden is a changing tapestry: In May, the shade-loving trillium, shooting star, and burgundy pin-striped Jack-in-the-Pulpit make their appearance. In early June, mountain laurel and rhododendron show their pompom flowers.

Garden in the Woods, which is open from April to October, also offers home gardeners an opportunity to order seeds or buy plants that have been propagated in the garden's nursery. On June 8, the garden holds its annual wildflower plant sale. For information call (508) 877-6574.

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