Open Air Orchid Aficionados

In this new essay by Stephanie Mills, we’re introduced to the Leelanau Conservancy’s Emily Douglas and a couple of dedicated natural resource volunteers – special people committed to fostering an expansion in Leelanau County’s orchid population. Nature Change is grateful to author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills for offering this new essay, part of her series of essays on natural resource experts and their work in Northern Michigan. [All photos are by Stephanie Mills!]

Chuck Dickerson

In a world where florists purvey orchid corsages and online orchid vendors are legion, it’s enlightening to learn that glimpsing native wild orchids will only be on nature’s schedule. Late last year, to see some very carefully attended Showy Lady’s Slippers in full bloom, I broached the possibility of a visit to one of the Leelanau Conservancy’s northerly natural areas with Conservancy land steward Emily Douglas and volunteer Chuck Dickerson who, with his wife Janet, has been doing much to foster the orchid population there. Late this June, the “Showies” were flowering and we converged at the preserve, access to whose sensitive habitats is restricted.

Emily Douglas

Although it is federally listed as endangered in nearly every state where it’s found and its wetland habitat grows scarcer daily, in Michigan, the Showy Lady’s Slipper is not yet considered to be a “species of special concern.” As we are seeing at this very moment, the whole idea of governmental protection for endangered species is coming under political assault by special interests. To un-endanger species, you’ve got to have the kinds of places where they like to live, and that involves land protection, which never comes easy. Conservation organizations and philanthropic citizens must do what they can to fill the breach.

Chuck arrived and we introduced ourselves at the roadside.  He noticed a deer in the distance and swore “You’re not eating my orchids!” It is a fact that deer, according to Cranbrook’s fine Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region are “Attracted by its rich vanilla-like fragrance…sometimes graze heavily on Showy Lady’s Slippers.” But not here. Chuck crossed his fingers in hopes that what he saw dangling from the mouth of that coyote on the beach this morning was a fawn’s entrails. Then Emily, a fresh-faced, botanically adept young woman with an artful tattoo of a goldenrod adorning much of a forearm came along. Both devoted to a wild future for these gorgeous orchids, Chuck and Emily form a mutual admiration society.

“Chuck is literally the heart behind the project,” Emily says. “The heart and the start.” Chuck modestly demurs, voicing complete admiration for Emily’s good work.

At one time, the natural area had a boardwalk that allowed visitors to approach the orchids.  Their seasonal flowering had long been a neighborhood natural wonder, something folks alerted friends to, like northern lights. In the 1990s, more than a thousand plants were observed there. Fundamental to the Conservancy’s program for restoring the natural area’s orchid population to its former numbers is surrounding the patches where they grow with deer exclosures. These are discreet—no razor wire involved—and seem to be effective.

Chuck told me how he’d become so interested in the Showies. “When we came up here in the summers I was looking for something to do,” he said. “Janet’s dad gave me a camera—this would have been in the 70s or 80s—so I looked for something to photograph and took photos in the vicinity. Everybody knew about the orchids.” In 2003, many of the preserve’s orchids evidently were stolen, likely by someone who’d heard of their market value but ignorant of the unlikelihood that they could survive transplantation. Dry spells and deer browsing also threatened the population’s survival. The boardwalk was removed. When the orchids began disappearing the Dickersons wanted to do something about it. Chuck and Janet’s full partnership in the work got started, he said, “when somebody did a dastardly deed.”

We slogged into the rich tamarack swamp where the orchids dwell. The wet late spring meant that our muck boots sank ankle deep into the gluey ground. Cinnamon and royal ferns surrounded us as well as tamarack and cedar saplings.  Luckily, before I capsized in the uncertain terrain, we came to an enclosure. “Showy” barely begins to do the orchids, plants two or three feet high sporting voluptuous pink and white blossoms, justice. Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region,calls the Showy Lady’s Slipper, or Queen’s Lady’s Slipper, majestic, noting that “It prefers wet, open habitats, especially the bright, sunny openings of northern fens.” [alkaline wetlands]

Given the problems, to restore historic levels of Showy Lady’s Slippers to this juicy terrain requires considerable intervention involving citizen science and improvisation, with dedicated amateurs learning, rigorously, alongside conservation professionals. The Dickersons and the Conservancy’s botany buffs are working for there to be more orchids. It’s tricky, because orchids are “wild flower aristocrats…rather particular in their requirements of soil and moisture, orchids, though widely distributed, are found only in the special places that definitely meet their needs,” writes Marjorie Bingham in the stately Orchids of Michigan (1939, Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin No. 15).

Showy Lady’s Slippers are Michigan’s largest, most conspicuous orchids, but are only one among about fifty orchid species found here. Showy Lady’s Slippers belong to the genus Cypripedium. Other Michigan Lady’s Slippers include the rare Ram’s head, the Smaller and Larger Yellow, the Small White, and the Stemless, a.k.a. Purple Moccasin Flower.  Cypripediums are also known as moccasin flowers, squirrel shoes, and whip-poor-will’s shoes. (How long has it been since you’ve heard a whip-poor-will?) Apart from the Lady’s Slippers, most of Michigan’s orchids are delicately small, but wondrous nonetheless. In front of my house I’ve got some unmajestic alien helleborine orchids growing wild. They seem pretty rugged with their dozen or so downcast purple flowers ratcheting up their stems.

With their highly evolved reproductive strategies and thus their myriad fantastic flower forms orchids fascinate like no other flowers. Unlike most flowers, orchids can’t pollinate themselves. so the blossoms are extraordinarily specialized and adapted for cross pollination. Most orchid pollen, being gummy and bunchy rather than fine and powdery, travels in masses called pollinia. To lure in certain nectar-seeking creatures orchid flowers resort to all manner of morphological stratagems, like color, fragrance, pouches and fringes. One of the Lady’s Slipper’s petals, for instance forms a pouch to waylay visiting bees and then steers them out through a tight portal, ensuring that they drop off any pollinia they’ve brought and get stuck with more to carry off. Successful pollination results in development of pods containing multitudes of seeds. (If you’ve used whole vanilla beans, which are actually orchid seed pods, you’ll have seen them teeming.)

Cross fertilization, intraspecies DNA mingling, is important to maintain the resilience of the orchids, or any population of organisms, ensuring a sufficient array of traits for adaptation and survival. Over the years of their involvement the Dickersons have cross-pollinated and collected seed pods from the natural area’s  scarce Lady’s Slippers and sent them to a Wisconsin grower who specializes in germinating orchid seeds. Next “Seven hundred little plants came back and were planted in flats at my house,” said Chuck. Over the decade it took to nurture the orchids to maturity, a healthy seventy plants managed to survive to be planted out in the natural area.

It’s a captive breeding program, ironically involving outstate facilities, specialists, and fences to foster a resurgence of something native and wild. Yet in an age of extinctions, saving species and protecting them in situ is desperate, engrossing and ultimately hopeful work.

Chuck concerns himself with the sturdiness of the exclosures, and their aesthetics.  He’d like to construct one that would allow people to photograph the Showy Lady’s Slippers established at a site on Omena Point Road.

“We’re introducing new plants to a new area,” said Chuck. “Not only putting ‘em back where they were but where they should be.”

Orchids are finicky, said Chuck. They “are where they want to be.” “Where they want to be” is a place where the specific mycorrhizal fungus they depend on is present. Therefore transplanting them is an uncertain proposition. There are realms within realms of biodiversity, and mycorrhizal fungi, minute threadlike organisms that interconnect the plants in given ecosystems and foster their metabolism, are among the minuscule actors that make the world go round.

Amid dense vegetation, the robust plants we visited were among those Chuck had propagated from the natural area’s ecotype and then planted there fairly recently. There is much of the scientist about Chuck Dickerson. He’s aiming to make useful observations about what’s going on with each and every Showy Lady’s Slipper, which he and Emily seem to know individually. The orchids, says Emily, “are also Chuck’s children, so he in effect has hundreds.”

He was indeed paternally solicitous as we visited the individual plants. At one exclosure he exclaimed “We’ve got clumping going on!” then exchanged high fives with Emily. Clumping—the plant’s growing more flower stems—was happy news.

We came to another of the exclosures, this one surrounding several plants, three propagated orchids Emily planted around an indigenous plant.  Their restoration work is discriminating. “I don’t garden,” says Chuck. “I don’t go in and pull out other plants.”

Chatting as we gingerly made our way around in the swamp, Chuck and Emily were as enthralled with the orchids as if it were their first-ever encounter. They finish each other’s sentences:

“You could spend your whole life…” says Emily.

“On just this one plant,” says Chuck.

Which, given the Showies’ beauty, rarity, and fascination, seems like a fair and noble exchange.

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