Monday, May 25, 2009
Lady's Slippers at Mansfield Hollow
Memorial Day is usually flowering time for Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady's Slipper), a native orchid that occurs here and there in northeastern Connecticut. Last weekend, I checked out a few local populations that I knew from previous years, and didn't see much in the way of flowers or buds, so I figured it was going to be a bad year for Lady's Slippers. However, poking around Mansfield Hollow State Park today, I ran across some really impressive stands of this somewhat uncommon wildflower. There was a little evidence of damage from deer and two-legged vermin (one plant pulled up and left by a trail), but also many dozens of plants at the peak of bloom.
The Mansfield Hollow and Mansfield Center region is underlain by thick layers of rough, nutrient-poor sand and gravel left over from the glaciers. The trees are mostly White Pine and various oaks, and there are blasted heaths of bare sand where vegetation has never managed to recolonize old roads or gravel pits. There's a neat overview of the local geology here. However, areas with exceptionally poor soil like this are always home to interesting plants.
Dry, acidic woods like these are the typical home of Cypripedium acaule. The plants seem to favor somewhat open sites in the forest, and patches of Lady's Slippers tend to come and go over the years as old sites get overgrown and new gaps open up. The long, toothy leaves in the background are an American Chestnut sprout, another frequent component of the flora in this type of habitat.
In the harshest spots where the orchids hang on, they're shorter than the plants deeper in the woods. This was a population under some stunted pines near an open gravel slope; the canopy was thin enough and the soil dry and poor enough that there were also patches of Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangiferina).
Pink Lady's Slipper is protected in Connecticut (doubly so in state parks), so visitors should tread lightly around the plants, and not pick or dig them under any circumstances. In any event, the plants need very specialized conditions to grow and are nearly impossible to transplant (gardeners should not take that as challenge! Seriously, it is cruel and wrong to swipe these plants from the wild), and are best enjoyed in situ.