Flower Power

Orchids, among the world’s most exotic blooms, are mostly tropical, but some hardy species grow wild in New Jersey—including the object of the author’s obsession, the bizarre pink lady’s slipper.

Naturalist G. Russell Juelg of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation leads the author on a hunt for the rare pink lady’s slipper orchid.
Photo by Laura Moss.

If the world of wildflowers is a summer carnival, Cypripedium acaule is the freak show. Compared to the nice suburban flowers on my block in Rutherford, Cypripedium acaule—commonly known as pink lady’s slipper or pink moccasin flower—is more fleshy than floral, more vulgar than cute. It’s a flower that would be at home in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museum—between a Mason jar filled with eyeballs and a two-headed snake skin. In fact, it’s so odd that it has sprung up on alien planets in episodes of Star Trek (apparently, lady’s slipper grows in the Delta Quadrant).

I’m not normally one to hunt wildflowers. Instead, I prefer when flowers find me—like when Venus’s looking glass winks up at me from the cracks in the neighbor’s sidewalk. I like the element of surprise.

But the moment I first saw Cypripedium acaule in my wildflower book, my casual affair turned into an obsession. If I wanted to see its weird bloom—and I did, desperately—I would have to go out and hunt it down.

Trouble is, that is easier said than done.

Pink lady’s slipper is more reclusive and shy than most other Jersey flowers—perhaps because it knows it’s special. It’s a wild orchid. Usually, Florida hogs the spotlight for its array of tropical epiphytes (plants, such as orchids, that cling to trees). But we’ve got orchids too—terrestrial varieties that nestle in the earth to survive our cold months. There are more than 25,000 species of wild orchids growing on all continents except Antarctica—but only about 45 to 50 of them are found in New Jersey.

For novices and casual wildflower gazers like myself, native orchids can be tricky to locate without a guide. Compared to your run-of-the-mill wildflowers, orchids are a rarity and usually found off the beaten trail.
Plus, these flowers have a network of human bodyguards. In an effort to shield native orchids from being picked, dug up or trampled, naturalists tend to guard orchid locations as if protecting the whereabouts of Captain Kidd’s supposed buried treasure at Sandy Hook.

Orchid hunters of years past risked life and limb in search of new blooms. The rarer and more mysterious orchids seem, the more people want them. I wanted to see lady’s slipper the way my uncle once wanted eight-point trophy antlers mounted on his wall. But when I started asking around, I ran into trouble. Either people didn’t know where pink lady’s slipper grew, or they did know but flat out wouldn’t tell me. Not that I blamed them. Orchids get people all worked up.

Orchidaceae, the orchid family, has been around for a long time—since before the dinosaurs—and it’s very diverse. The word orchid comes from the Latin Orchis, for “testicle,” based on the shape of some orchids’ roots. It was long believed that orchids grew from the spilled semen of mating animals. One little-known theory of evolution suggests that early orchids may have mutated in soil irradiated by meteorites, which would mean they’re the X-Men of the plant world. The women of Victorian England were forbidden to own orchids—until Queen Victoria herself decided she could in fact handle the rather erotic look of orchids like lady’s slipper without going into paroxysms of desire.

Pink lady’s slipper is not New Jersey’s rarest orchid. If anything, it might be our ugliest. It’s princess pink—but it’s also a fat, shriveled sac fringed by gnarled brown “shoestrings”—making it look both muscular and dainty. It thrives in habitats throughout New Jersey but especially in the acidic soil and dappled shade of the Pine Barrens. It blooms primarily in early spring, though the Pinelands Preservation Alliance notes that it can flower into July. Lady’s slipper also appears in yellow and pink-and-white varieties.

If you choose the right botanical walk at the right time with the right guide, you can sometimes spot a wild orchid or two. But me—I’m not naturally lucky.

I was on the brink of giving up my lady’s slipper hunt when I discovered G. Russell Juelg, 55, a land steward of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation at the Franklin Parker Preserve. Juelg, who moved from Texas to New Jersey about two decades ago, has spent the last 15 years working as a professional conservationist—a career that has included 11 years at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and three at Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford.

Juelg was first tipped off to the location of a lady’s slipper colony in the Pine Barrens more than 10 years ago. It was in the Whitesbog vicinity of Burlington County. “I’d seen [lady’s slipper] before,” he told me. “But I’d never seen a population that had so many individuals, and I got there just at a time when they were at the peak of their blossoming. It was kind of a magical moment.”

The day of our expedition dawned more like Death Valley than Disneyland. The sugar-sand roads were baking hot; the air was thick enough to drink. Juelg warned me—again and again—not to get my hopes up. We had arrived at the tail end of peak bloom, and the unseasonably hot weather suggested that the flowers would be gone. We’d probably missed them by a couple days.

But I was determined to be optimistic anyway.

The thing about orchids is they can be an addiction. They make you greedy—and maybe a little unrealistic. Christine Schairer, 37, of Egg Harbor City, had an encounter with lady’s slipper that changed her life. At 13, Schairer became one of the youngest members of the Sandpiper Orchid Society, one of New Jersey’s seven orchidophile clubs that are affiliated with the nationwide American Orchid Society.

At first, Schairer loved the exotic cultivars favored by so many orchid hobbyists because of their bright colors and unusual appearances. Eventually, she earned her bachelor’s of science in biology from Richard Stockton College. She first heard about New Jersey’s native lady’s slipper from the assistant director of the science labs. But she’d never seen one.

One day, while she was planting blueberry bushes on her cousin’s farm in Mullica Township, she discovered a pink lady’s slipper blooming unexpectedly next to her dad’s pickup truck. From then on, she made it her goal to see as many native orchids as possible. To date, she’s seen 18 of the Pine Barrens’ 28 or so species—including the rare pink-and-white lady’s slipper.

Can you say, “Jealous?”

For me, lady’s slipper had become the kind of thing I needed to see to believe. The more I learned about it, the more fantastic it became. It was a dizzying spiral—my orchidelirium, as it was called in the late 1800s, was fueled in part by lady’s slipper’s mystifying physiology.

Cypripedium acaule’s bulbous pink labellum is to bees what Starbucks is to coffee drinkers. Like a neon open sign, those shriveled veins in the main sac direct a bee’s eyes: “Right this way for a grande pollenccino.” But once inside, the bee is stuck—forced to wiggle toward the labellum’s back door, bumping up against gooey, quick-drying pollen. With luck, the bee will be lured into another flower’s pink labellum, so that the pollen gets passed from one flower to another. When pollination is successful, fertilized ovules can turn into seeds.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But bees too big to escape will sometimes chew their way to safety. Bumbling bees just die inside. To make things worse, lady’s slipper doesn’t offer any actual food (no nectar), so bees that do climb in are duped and inconvenienced.

More often than not, lady’s slippers don’t get pollinated. So they would seem to be doomed. But there’s hope. The average lifespan of a wild lady’s slipper orchid is 20 years—but a plant can live 100 years or more in good conditions. The New York Botanical Garden has an orchid that has been living since 1902. The biological clocks of Orchidaceae wind down not in decades, but generations. If a lady’s slipper does manage to get pollinated, it could generate a whopping 60,000 dust-like seeds.

The trick is not getting flattened, eaten or turned into a bouquet. Reckless picking—coupled with deer browse and habitat loss or degradation—compels naturalists to treat orchid colonies with care and even secrecy. Not all of Jersey’s orchids are protected, but it is illegal to remove them from state or federal lands.
“I have mixed feeling about showing people orchids,” Juelg told me. “I know that there is always a possibility that there will be an irresponsible person who will take advantage. But I weigh that against the possibility that people are going to be inspired by [the orchids] to throw their weight into the conservation effort. I hope for the best.”

Schairer, too, has felt her share of pain over orchid abuse. Once, she saw two white-fringed orchids not far from her house, blooming near a dump. When she went back the next day to snap a photo, all that remained were two holes. “It made me angry,” she says. “They took something away that others could have enjoyed. It destroys the environment for the future and is disrespectful of the past. Plus, you know the orchid’s just going to die anyway without its fungus.”

Yep, you read that right. Fungus. Orchids and fungus go together like summertime and trips down the Shore. In order to grow, all orchid species require the presence of their own special mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. A lady’s slipper orchid might release 60,000 seeds, but unless those seeds land in just the right soil, all they are is dust in the wind.

Most seedlings of plant species have their own built-in food supply, but the pantries of orchid seeds are bare. There’s no fuel for growth. With luck, the microfungus will eat the seedling’s outer casing without damaging the inner cells, freeing the plant to grow and also delivering (and receiving) vital nutrients. It’s a delicate symbiosis—halfway between a bar brawl and a pas de deux.

There’s some debate in the orchid community about whether lady’s slipper continues to need its microfungus after it reaches a certain age. But most people and wildflower guidebooks report that a transplanted terrestrial orchid will live only for a few years—if that. Given how long an unmolested orchid could live, it’s kind of heartbreaking to think of one dying so young.

As Juelg and I bounced along the narrow, sandy roads of the pine forest—so isolated we might have been driving straight into a horror movie—I prepared myself to be disappointed. Wild orchids are just that: wild. They don’t do what you want them to do. That’s why most people who fall in love with orchids tend to fall in love with the kind you can grow on your windowsill.

Keeping orchids, particularly the showy tropical epiphytes, was once a hobby restricted to the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Duponts, who could afford expensive imports. But these days, orchid lovers can buy orchids fully mature for prices starting at around $25. Some people will tell you that tropical cultivars are easy to keep once you know how to strike a balance between caring for them and leaving them alone.

But lady’s slipper—our little “shoe of Venus”—is definitely a prima donna. Most orchids can be reproduced through cloning, but not lady’s slipper. Lady’s slipper growers must send their seeds to laboratories, where the plants can germinate at leisure in a cozy flask of agar—a gelatinous, sugary mix. Talk about a fussy (test tube) baby! The Vermont Lady’s Slipper Company warns that they are “not for the beginner.”

Amazingly, when Juelg and I climbed out of the car, we instantly spotted what appeared to be the last—the very last—blooming lady’s slipper in those woods. I whooped—yes, whooped—and flitted around for a moment with joy. How lucky are we? A lady’s slipper orchid must mature for 10 to 17 years before it flowers. And then, the energy expenditure of flowering is so great for lady’s slipper that it can take up to four years to recover and bloom again.

Of course, I’d hoped to see a whole colony of lady’s slippers. But in a way, the last little orchid that we found embodied what wild orchids are: a bit unexpected, a bit unaccommodating and a lot serendipitous. Call it hedonistic, but it was hard not to think that one last, unlikely flower was still blooming because it was waiting for me.

There may not be buried treasure at Sandy Hook; the Jersey Devil might be a great blue heron. But that doesn’t mean New Jersey lacks for mystery. Orchids are out there. We can hunt them, ponder them, study them and photograph them—but in the end, they still elude us a little—even when they’re in front of our eyes.

Lisa Dale’s newest novel, Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier (Penguin), was a Barnes & Noble Top Pick. She lives (and admires wildflowers) in Rutherford.

Click here to read another story about orchids in New Jersey.

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