Wild Orchids, the White Mountains, and the Native Orchid Conference

Cypripedium acaule;lady's slipper orchid;moccasin flower;native orchid conference;Coeloglossum viride Wild Orchids, the White Mountains, and the Native Orchid Conference

15 June 2015

So, can one ever get jaded about Cypripedium acaule? It only seems like a year ago (actually, it was 3) when we stumbled across our first one blooming on the hiking trail across the road from our house, and we got hooked. Which is why this is how we spent our summer vacation.

So what did we learn? Well, at the lecture by Dr. Douglas Gill, who has been studying a population of Cypripedium acaule for close on 40 years, we gathered some instructive tidbits on how the Forest Service starts controlled burns. I don't want to get into any trouble for disseminating sensitive information over the internet, so I'll simply say it involved some incendiary substances found in your basic chemistry class, a hypodermic needle, a ping pong ball, and a slingshot. Or crossbow, according to your taste. Enough said.

<i>Coeloglossum viride</i><br/>on Bear Notch Road
Coeloglossum viride
on Bear Notch Road
Taking Pictures
Taking Pictures

And then there were the orchids. And the orchid hunting. It's not too much to risk your life prone on an interstate highway, even if it means photographing the rare Coeloglossum viride. Is it?

As for the Cypripediums, the place was lousy with them (link to gallery of photos here), even when we were playing hooky and trying to hike up Pine Mountain or the appropriately named Frankenstein Ledges. (Have I ever mentioned I'm about as bad with heights as I am with snakes? There would be those who would say I should quit hiking and go back to running marathons.)

<i>Cypripedium Acaule</i> on<br/>Thompson Falls Trail
Cypripedium Acaule on
Thompson Falls Trail

Cypripedium is both a European and American genus. In the European tradition, the Lady Slipper orchid (C. calceolus, a yellow variety) was originally believed to have been offered by Jesus to his mother, the Virgin Mary - until the staunchly Protestant Linnaeus had done with such Papish nonsense and named it for the goddess Aphrodite, whose home was Cyprus. Kyhl Lyndgaard takes up this issue of naming in his article, "Taking Off the Moccasin Flower and Putting on the Lady Slipper," arguing that the change in the plant's common name reflects 19th century attitudes toward their engagement with native Americans. According to Lyndgaard, in 1830, Almira Lincoln Phelps wrote in her Familiar Lectures of Botany that orchids oppose "all attempts at civilization, [and] are to be found only in the depths of the forest..., we may, in this respect, compare them to the aboriginal inhabitants of America, who seem to prefer their own native wilds to the refinements and luxuries of civilized life."

But by 1893, Ida Sexton Searles (sometimes spelled Searls) used the flower to offer a salutary lesson for gently bred young ladies in Indian Legends of Minnesota, compiled by Mrs. Cordenio E. Severance (1893).

(Not a <i>Cypripedium acaule</i>.<br/>Not even <i>C. reginae</i>,<br/>Minnesota's state flower.<br/>Presumably <i>C. parviflorum</i><br/>or even the European<br/><i>C. calceolus</i>.<br/>But it's a nice cover.)
(Not a Cypripedium acaule.
Not even C. reginae,
Minnesota's state flower.
Presumably C. parviflorum
or even the European
C. calceolus.
But it's a nice cover.)

In Apple-Blossoms, Verses of Two Children, by Elaine Goodale and Dora Read Goodale (published in 1879, when Elaine was 15 and Dora 12), Elaine presents a suitably childish fairy tale as the flower's legend:

But only a year later, in In Berkshire with the Wildflowers, Elaine Goodale describes C. acaule in terms that suggest her future life, caring for the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre, marrying Dr. Charles Eastman, a Santee Sioux doctor of part Anglo-American ancestry, and pursuing a writing career that culminated in the publication of her finest novel, One Hundred Maple, in 1935, when she was 70 years old. (Interestingly, the volume was illustrated by William Hamilton Gibson, whose unconsciously passionate descriptions of the sex life of orchids I've already blogged about here.)

Arethusa Falls, not<br/> far from Frankenstein Cliff
Arethusa Falls, not
far from Frankenstein Cliff

But are there any authentic Native American legends about the flower? According to the Cedar Tree Institute, the legend of the Moccasin Flower is grounded in the traditions of the Peoples of the Three Fires (the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi), and begins:

"Many winters ago, on the shores of the Great Lake lived a young Ojibway maiden who adored her older brother... The tribe gave him the task of messenger for the village. He taught his sister his skills, but never took her with him when he ran to other villages to relay news."

The Cedar Tree institute goes on to remind us that this is, according to Joseph Campbell, the theme of "the undervalued young man or woman, the ugly duckling or, in this case, a left-behind sibling, is a common motif in great sagas and stories found around the world. Campbell said there's plenty of psychological evidence that suggests an element of our individual psyches, part of our own unending evolution, always cries out to be heard and honored. Why else, he asks, do we love the underdog?"

Other versions of the story make the unlikely heroine the wife of the messenger, but in all those stories, the moccasin flower memorializes the bloody feet of a heroine who ventures in the dead of winter without any shoes to save her people. And unlike Mrs. Searles' cautionary tale, in this story, the heroine survives and triumphs. As such, the legend is a natural choice for a children's book, and there are several available. I came across this one at the C. acaule conference, although the flowers on the cover look more like C. reginae to my inexpert eyes.

As for the moccasin flower that got us started, it has survived as well - more or less. When we went up to check on it, it had a spike, but the flower was gone - whether by deer or human carelessness, we'll never know. So in the spirit of underdogs everywhere - especially New York's Mets and Rangers fans - it looks like we'll have to wait until next year...

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird