Rediscovering a Lost Treasure
Lady slippers still grow in pine woods
If 75 or so years ago I had only known what I have learned, today I might be enjoying life tromping though the woods as an ancient horticulturist rather than on the waters as an ancient mariner.
When not sneaking down to Art Ide’s pond to fish for smaller members of the catfish family called horned pout (tastier than their larger cousins), I romped the woods in search of treasures with younger sister Ruth.
We spent much of many a happy and carefree day simply looking for anything we could find, and atop the list in the New England forest were the purple lady slippers. They were the favorite wildflower of Aunt Caroline, who failed to tame them for her flower gardens on the farm.
Once she scolded me when I picked one, and I was too ashamed to tell her the flower in my hand was for Gwendolyn my first grade love. Auntie had told me lady slippers were of the orchid family; I knew orchids were the special flower, so what better way to impress the girl with the long golden locks?
As my life progressed, most of my time was spent on the water fishing, at a desk writing or afield hunting for game signs, not posies. A couple of years ago, it dawned on me I had not seen a lady slipper in a half century, and I longed to come across one to bring me back to those carefree romps in the woods with Ruth.
Last summer while visiting the Burton Woodlands, a large tract of hardwood forest with pines mixed in, I stopped at the big stone slab erected by the Glocester Heritage Society in honor of my family, who donated a large tract of woodlands to satisfy my grandmother and grandfather who wanted much of the farm to be preserved in its primitive state. As I sat my granddaughter Grumpy on the stone for a picture, a bit of purple caught my eye.
A couple of feet from the marker was a lady slipper in full bloom.
We have these beautiful flowers in Maryland, but as hunting forays come long after they bloom, I had not seen one.
The Bay Gardener Corrects My Education
Who better to ask than the Bay Gardener, Frank Gouin. He informed me I hadn’t been looking in the right places. They are usually in or close to a pine environment. Often they grow amidst pine needles.
The flower of my heart, he said, was also known as moccasin flowers. There are yellow and brown varieties. They come and go. You’ll see them for a year or two, and they’re gone; then they come back. Countless admirers have tried to transplant them. No dice. They’re not endangered or in trouble other than by the conversion of forests to development though squirrels seem to enjoy the bloom, which rises in June.
While I had Frank’s ear, I asked about another treasure Ruth and I searched for, Indian pipes, whitish stems with a single drooping bowl at the top. They have the appearance of an old clay pipe. Frank told me they’re found near decaying stumps and logs in a mixed forest, and, yes, their real name is Indian pipes. You see them from June through August, and there are many varieties. He has seen them on the Eastern Shore.
When I called Ruth to tell her of Indian pipes (also called corpse plant, probably because of their grayish death-like color) she looked them up on the Web, then called back with some interesting background. Seems the Cherokees and a neighboring tribe came close to war over hunting grounds. They held a powwow and smoked their peace pipes, yet could settle nothing, so they kept on humped over and smoking.
The Great Spirit tired of seeing the old gray men humped over their pipes, so he turned them into small silver-gray flowers.
Ruth and I also looked for what we called puff balls, a member of the mushroom family. Squeeze the whitish and brownish ball and out would come puffs of a black/brown powder. We’d toy with them until there was no more powder, then discard them. But Dr. Gouin said we should have taken them home to the kitchen. They’re delicious.
Another find for Ruth and me were teaberries, which Frank remembers well. While he was walking the woods in Maine recently, he picked up a leaf and started chewing on it. His wife wondered if he was attempting suicide. No way: The leaves have a minty flavor, the sometimes accompanying red berries even more of a delightful tang. We spent much time sitting on the ground chewing leaves and berries. To us it was free gum. Real Spearmint by Wriggly cost five cents a pack during the Great Depression.
If only we knew then what we know now, and much of it recently, the fascination of the wild growth in the woodlands, the excitement of finding and enjoying, Ruth and I would probably have ended up in the field of botany. We needed no computers, videos or cell phones; a walk in the woods occupied our time. It could only have been better if the Bay Gardner was along. We wouldn’t have taken our treasures for granted. Enough said.