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Lady slippers

07/08/03 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin offers a glimpse of the Lady Slipper, one of Vermont's more elusive wild flowers.

(Levin) Last week my family and I visited a secluded fen in the White River Valley to see a stand of showy lady's slippers, Vermont's largest and arguably most gorgeous orchid. Fens are calcareous peat-building wetlands, where species diversity is rich and water flows either on the surface or underground. By contrast, bogs--the other type of peatlands--are acidic and stagnant.

The White River valley fen Is narrow and small, hardly more than an acre in size. It was surrounded by wooded banks that grow into hills and eventually
flatten into hay fields and forest. The ground is squishy. Cool water spreads across our sneakers. The air is chilled, a tiny cold pocket, flecked with butterflies: viceroys, admirals, painted ladies. Caterpillars of tussock moths crowd the stems of horsetails, which droop under their weight. A fearless peeper crouches on the leaf of a water avens, as though camped on some beneficent green hand.

The lady slippers grow in the center of the fen, amid sprays of marsh and cinnamon ferns; a couple dozen plants, supporting more than thirty flowers in every stage of development from bud to bloom.

The flower is as long as my index finger. Three cream-white sepals and petals fanned out behind an inflated white pouch, the slipper, which is furrowed and veined with deep-pink or rose. A purple-spotted, yellow tongue hangs down, blocks the mouth of the slipper, obscuring the business end of the flower. Flowers are, after all, the plant's way to reproduce.

Orchid flowers have undergone a radical condensation of floral parts. The three
pairs of pollen producing organs, the stamens, and the three female organs, the pistils, are fused into a single unit called the column. Even the pollen grains are lumped together into sticky masses, the pollinia, to be carried on the heads and thoraxes of duped insects. This economical delivery of pollen ensures cross - rather than self-pollination. Showy lady's slippers, which belong to the most primitive and best known group of native orchids, trap pollinators in the
slipper.

As we watch a blossom, a small bee enters the flower and bangs around inside the slipper, wildly buzzing in what appears to be abject frustration.

Guided by directional hairs, the bee eventually crawls behind the tongue, rubbing against the sticky pollen-bearing masses.

A slow learner, the bee escaped the lady's slipper and immediately entered another, unwittingly fertilizing the second flower, the sexual mediary.

As we leave the fen, I explain to my boys the difference between a fen and a bog. To tie the science lesson to a more familiar subject, I tell them that the Red Sox play baseball on what was once a coastal fen, which is why their ball-yard is called Fenway. And I couldn't help but mention that the Red Sox once had a chicken-eating
third baseman named Boggs.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center, Vermont.


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