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Spring wildflower traditions

Lily Ogozalek, 2015
TRR photos by Kristin Barron

May 18, 2016

Wildflowers made me who I am. One of my first memories is of a walk in the woods to see the first May flowers—the pin-striped blooms of the spring beauty and the delicate, fur-stemmed hepatica. The trout lily and trillium, blue cohosh and wild ginger were all old friends to be visited each year in “The May-Flower Woods” as I grew up on our old farm. I know where to find them still in their same, specific spots in that same woods along Neering Road.

Always, when I think of living here, the wildflowers are among my first thoughts. Those long-ago journeys to see the hepatica and the May apple were my primal introduction to nature and this old farmstead. I can only hope that when I die my last thoughts will be of the new ferns and the hepatica, the squirrel corn and coltsfoot of early spring.

This year the spring came fast, but then stalled, so that now it feels a bit behind. My daffodils were touched by frost and the lilac in my front yard, which is generally in blossom on Mother’s Day, is just now in bud. The hepatica, out so early this year in March, was also frost nipped so that the flowers were sparse and withered.

But after last week’s cold and rain, the power of spring has come through in the color green. Everything is green—bursting leaves, and the sudden shoots of asparagus in my garden. Everything is green—the most alive and simultaneously restful of colors.

We are now waiting for the blossoms of the native, pink lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule, also known commonly as moccasin flower). Each year I take a photo of my daughter, Lily, with the lady’s slippers that bloom in our neighbor’s woods. We’ve been taking these annual photos since Lily was eight months old. I checked the spot yesterday and found the leaves are up now, so it will be about a week or two before the spectacular flowers appear.

These plants, similar to all orchids, have a tenuous life cycle that depends on a symbiotic relationship with fungus that is present in the soil. Lady’s slipper seeds have no store of food or nutrients themselves. The root threads of the fungus are needed to germinate the seed and supply it with food. As the plant matures, the roles are reversed and the plant begins to supply nutrients to the fungus. For this reason, these orchids are difficult to transplant.

Like all of our local orchid species, these flowers are named on the New York State list “Protected Native Plants” list. As protected species, they are prohibited from being collected “whole or in part.” There are, however, cultivated lady’s slipper orchids that are available for purchase.