They are rare, they are fickle, they are picky, they are beautiful, and we have them in our parks. The frustrating thing is, we can’t really tell everybody where they are because, well, folks steal them. Worse yet, when they are transplanted they usually die because they require specific, exacting environmental conditions for survival. Change anything about the soil, water or light and the plant dies. So the theft is pointless, even from the thief’s point of view.
They are pink lady’s slippers, a type of orchid, and if you know what to look for they are a joy to find. The staff at Hidden Oaks Nature Center recently was in contact with a patron over concerns for a group of the flowers growing within sight of a busy park facility. Park staff has been aware of them for more than ten years,
Over those years, we have been counting flowers and checking to see if there has been evidence of collecting or picking. Fortunately, we have not found that the flowers have been disturbed, even though a number of the blooms are in proximity to a very heavily used recreational area. We typically check about three or four times a week during the blooming season.
Staff has discussed the idea of roping off the site with Bob Stevenson, who oversees park maintenance and care of athletic fields in that part of the county, but the feeling is that adding ropes would create more of an attention draw than protection of the area. The main stand of flowers in that area is, fortunately, under trees, back a few feet from open grass. For the last decade, staff purposefully has not trimmed pine trees that stand between the flowers and the frequented facility so as to visually block the area of the pink lady’s slippers. This has discouraged people from sitting or walking in that area. Stevenson also does not want to post any signage, again not wanting to draw attention to the flowers.
We are fascinated by this beautiful flower, and years ago Hidden Oaks had the opportunity to host one of the plant’s leading researchers, Dr. Douglas Gill from the University of Maryland. He noted that a patch of lady’s slippers in Annandale Community Park was diminishing due to the natural succession of the surrounding forest, which was in transition from evergreen to deciduous. For the last six years or so, we have not found a bloom in that park.
According to Dr. Gill, the pink lady’s slippers are unusual in that the plant can go dormant for up to, and possibly more than, 20 years. The amount of light, ability of the seed to connect with the proper rhizomes, plus other growing conditions will affect the number of blooms we see each year. Unlike many other plants, a healthy stand may not increase in number each year even in the best conditions. Orchids have a surprisingly challenging process to go from pollination to a new bloom. In the best case scenario, a pollinated seed may take six to ten years to even produce leaves. Hopefully, the reduced number of blooms we have noticed at another particular park is due to many of the plants going dormant and they will bloom again.
Protecting our natural resources is one responsibility of the Park Authority. Another is connecting people to nature. This situation would appear to create a conflict in those goals, but there is a way to see these beauties. Hidden Oaks has led pink lady’s slippers walks around Mother’s Day at one park annually since 2007, and even before that at Annandale Community Park.
Author Suzanne Holland is the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.