When my guy and I began our journey this afternoon, he thought our mission was simple and two-fold. First, we’d double check road names and directions for a friend’s book that I’m editing. And then we’d hike the easy Ron’s Loop at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Back Pond Reserve in Stoneham, Maine.
No sooner had I parked the truck and we hopped out, when I announced that we had a detour to make. Always one for adventure, he followed along. And when I told him our quest, he began to search the forest floor. I have to admit time and again that though he pretends not to care about so much that naturally distracts me, he has a keen eye. Or maybe its just that he likes a challenge. Perhaps, too, he just wanted to make the find and move on for the mosquitoes were robust and hungry.
What mattered most was that he channeled his Prince Charming and was the first to find Cinderella’s golden slipper.
Members of the Orchid family, lady’s slippers feature the typical three petals in an atypical fashion. The pouch (or slipper or moccasin), called the labellum, is actually one petal–inflated and veined.
With a purplish tint, the petals and sepals twisted and turned offering their own take on a ballroom dance. From every angle, they were simply elegant rising as they did from their stem with leaves forming a royal staircase.
Though we didn’t see any pink lady’s slippers on today’s hike, it’s interesting to note their differences, with the sac of the pink dangling down like a high-heeled shoe, while the yellow is more ballet-like in its presentation. And the pink features two basal leaves, in contrast to the alternate steps of the yellow’s leaves.
Both, however, are in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words “Cypris,” an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal, so named for the fused petals that form the pouch and their resemblance to a slipper or shoe.
All lines on this orchid led to . . . well, not exactly Rome, but certainly the labellum, or sac-like structure. With the rim turned inward, the pollinators found it easy to enter, but much more difficult to exit, the better to rub against the stigma and anthers, thus collecting pollen. Some bees find it difficult to simply fly away from the lady’s charm, but by chewing their way out, they are able to move on to the next and leave a message from the princess in the form of a pollen deposit.
We finally moved on with the not-so-sweet drone of those larger-than-life mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. And then we stumbled upon one American beech cotyledon after another and were reminded of last year’s mast crop of beech nuts.
I was again reminded that it’s my duty to bring attention to these structures, the seedling form of beech trees. The lower set of leathery embyronic leaves that remind me of a butterfly, appear before the tree’s true leaves make themselves known. Part of what intrigues me about these seed leaves that appear before the tree’s true leaves is that they contain stored food. Some of these food stores wither and fall off, but in the case of the many we saw today, the cotyledons had turned green and photosynthesized. I also love how the word cotyledon (cot·y·le·don \ ˌkä-tə-ˈlē-dᵊn \) flows off my tongue, much like marcescent, which describes the leaves of this same tree that cling, wither and rattle all winter long.
Though I’ve read that seeing beech cotyledons is a rare event and could attest to that fact in the past, thrilling with each siting, today we noted their ubiquitous nature.
Red maple cotyledons also decorated the trail. If the plant has two seed leaves, such as these, it is a dicot (dicotyledon), and if only one it is a monocot (monocotyledon).
Onward we moved, stopping occasionally as my guy did some trail work because its part of his nature to make a path clear for those who follow. Being a one-armed bandit, my help was still limited, but it won’t be long and I’ll be able to offer two capable hands.
Further along the trail, bunchberries were beginning to bloom. Normally, a bunchberry plant has two sets of opposite leaves. But . . . when one is mature enough to grow a third set, typically larger leaves (perhaps to capture more energy) than the first two sets, it produces four white bracts that we think of as petals. In reality, the bracts were modified leaves. The flowers were in the center–tiny as they were.
In what seemed like no time, for we moved so quickly, we reached the first bridge. It was at this point that we began the loop back toward the trailhead. And smiles crossed my face as I recalled memories of explorations along the way with so many others.
On the way back, we noted so many beech trees that dealt with nectria and we could only hope that within some of those cotyledons there might be some trees resistant to the beech scale insect that delivers such devastation to these trees.
One of my favorite trees along the way sat as it always does, taking a break upon a granite bench.
And a tinder conk showed off its form, which for me recalled a childhood spent along the Connecticut shoreline, for it surely resembled an oyster shell.
We were almost to the end of the loop when my heart and not my mouth sang with joy once again. While you might give thanks for small blessings like the fact that I’m a great lip sinker rather than the opera star my mind hears, I made my guy stop because the Indian Cucumber Root was in bloom.
Like the bunchberries that need that third set of leaves in order to fruit, Indian Cucumber Root needs two levels to produce a flower. I’m of the belief that if the structure of this flower doesn’t make you wonder, nothing will. It strikes me as a northern version of a bird of paradise.
In what seemed like my shortest adventure along this trail because we didn’t want to overdo our offerings to the female mosquitoes who needed our blood in order to reproduce, we crossed the second bridge back toward the trailhead.
It was near that crossing that I checked on a couple of yellow lady’s slippers and as has been true since I first met them–they weren’t in flower. From what I’ve learned, it’s not so odd that the plants have yet to bloom. Apparently, it takes 10-17 years for a seed to mature into a plant capable of blooming. For this plant and the one beside it, perhaps the blossoms are on the horizon.
One day they’ll reach the status of their neighbor. For any lady’s slippers, the dance is rather intricate. The stage floor must be painted with an acidic soil and there needs to be a sashay with Rhizoctonia fungi. As the fungi digests the outer cells of the seeds, inner cells escape digestion and absorb some of the nutrients the fungus obtained from the soil–all in the name of a symbiotic dance.
Though our journey flew by on the wings of the world’s largest, loudest, and meanest mosquitoes, our finds on this Mondate afternoon extended from lady’s slippers to cotyledons, bunchberries and Indian Cucumber Root. All appeared rare and exotic.