Being able to spend time outdoors and educate children and adults about nature is a joy during any season of the year but my heart belongs to spring. The season of warm breezes, budding trees, birds aplenty and wildflowers… oh, the wildflowers. I could wax poetic about trilliums, wild ginger, violets and mayapple until the pollinators come home. I love the way these ephemeral flowers light up the landscape like little jewels and then disappear as the leaves on the trees turn and the woods return to shade. I have seen the light of discovery illuminated in thousands of children as they smell wild ginger or red trillium.

However, it is the orchids that surprise people the most. Yes, there are native orchids in Ontario! There are 62 different kind of orchids in Ontario and 37 of those can be found on the Niagara Escarpment. The most impressive of all the orchids that can be found in Halton is the lady’s slipper orchid, named for the way their petals fold inward into a pouch that resembles the toe of a woman’s slipper. Lady’s slipper orchids are the most often found in yellow, however, pink lady’s slippers and showy lady’s slippers, which are pink and white, can be found with a little luck.

Hikers who spot lady’s slipper orchids from the trail should consider themselves very lucky. These orchids grow best from seed but the rate of germination is not very high, as the seeds need assistance from a specific fungus to obtain nutrients from the soil. Then, once they germinate, it can take ten years, or more, for the plant to produce a flower!

Looking for Flowers

One of my colleagues at Conservation Halton recalls a time when yellow lady’s slipper orchids were often found around the boardwalk at Crawford Lake but, by the time I began working there, the flowers were gone. I had never seen one before, so I was very excited when I spotted the tell-tale pair of green leaves growing beside the boardwalk at Crawford Lake a few years ago.

For three years, I guided groups of students past the leaves each spring, watching and waiting patiently for the plant to bloom, anticipating the day I would be able to share it with the children. Finally, on the fourth spring, I rounded a corner of the boardwalk, students in tow, to find a radiant yellow lady’s slipper nodding in the breeze. It’s tough to keep the respect of a group of elementary school students when you’re having a fit over a wildflower but they were remarkably patient with me and, with some explanation, came to see why this was so exciting.

The following day, I was excited to share the bloom with another school group, building the anticipation as we hiked into the woods, working up to the moment they would get to see the flower that takes more than a decade to bloom. We rounded the corner as a group but, sadly, the flower gone, with nothing left of the plant but the hole where it had grown.

It Takes a Thief

With some research, I learned that this is a pretty common occurrence. One of the reasons that lady’s slipper orchids are so hard to find is because they are usually dug up by gardeners seeking native orchids for their homes or by garden suppliers looking to sell them. This practice, combined with habitat loss from agriculture and urbanization, has resulted in orchids to becoming increasingly rare on the Niagara Escarpment.

It is even more unfortunate that these orchids were dug up because they do not transplant well. The relationship between the orchids and the soil fungus that enable the seeds to germinate also supports the plant throughout its life. These flowers almost never survive after being transplanted, so the flower that I hoped to share with those students likely didn’t last the rest of the season in a garden somewhere.

If you would like to plant these beautiful flowers in your garden, make sure you research your supplier and find out where they obtained their orchids before you make your purchase. Lady’s slipper orchids can be propagated in a greenhouse and should never be dug up from the wild.

In most cases, I believe that getting your hands dirty is the best way to learn about the natural world—after all, we are more likely to protect that which we love—but yellow lady’s slipper orchids are best enjoyed from a distance. Left in their natural habitat, lady’s slipper orchids can live for decades and provide thousands of children, and adults, with a sense of joy and an appreciation for nature.

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Last modified: April 6, 2018

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