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The slipper orchid flowers arrive at the climax of the spring wildflower season, and finding a colony of any of our three common species is a special occasion for most of us. Lady’s slippers all belong to the genus Cypripedium, which, through a convoluted etymology, refers to the foot of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. ‘Lady’ was a broader concept in those days than today.
We tend to think of the lady’s slippers as being rare, even endangered, but they are pretty common in the Northern Rivers area if you know where to look for them. An exception is the fourth local species, the ram’s head lady’s slipper, which I’ve never found here, although I’ve been told where it supposedly occurs.
The species most likely to be found on a woods walk is the pink lady’s slipper, sometimes called moccasin flower (C. acaulis— without a stem, referring to the single flower stalk), which, unlike the other species, is often seen outside wetlands. It is generally found growing in very acid soils, especially where conifer needles filter down, but where the shade isn’t too deep. For some reason, pink lady’s slippers seem to like human contact; they’re often most abundant along well-traveled pathways. Every spring we have 50 or 60 showing up in the proximity of our camp on Wolcott Pond; a clump appeared a few years ago in our lawn and is carefully mowed around—and never limed or fertilized. Generally, trying to move pink lady’s slippers results in failure, so it’s best to enjoy them where they choose to emerge on their own.
Yellow lady’s slippers (C. parviforum—small flowered) are more likely to show up in rich, moist deciduous woods, and especially in marshy areas. They like soils that are close to neutral pH, and they often are found in marly areas, and where there are outcrops of limestone or other carbonate rich rocks. In contrast to the pink species, yellow lady’s slippers are easy to grow in garden soil and do well with a bit of fertilizer. Clumps can last for decades and slowly expand to provide dozens of buttercup yellow flowers. Needless to say, they shouldn’t be collected in the wild except to save them from construction or logging, or perhaps sparingly from large colonies.
Showy lady’s slippers (C. reginae—of the queen) are usually found in rich fens and marshes. They is quite common—if you know where to look for them—in the floors of the several narrow valleys that traverse our area from north to south. You’ll usually need mud boots to visit the sites, and a knowledgeable guide helps. There’s one station in our area about 50 feet from a road and on dry land, and some of you are probably familiar with it. Showys flower a week or two later than the others, and often have two large flowers on a single stem reaching above knee height. They also are easy to grow—you can buy the plants in a nursery. In a decade or two, in a good rich soil with plenty of compost and maybe a little fertilizer, you can have a clump the size of a wheelbarrow, with a hundred flowers. That’s nice, but it doesn’t compare with the pleasure of slogging through wet grass and brush, and fighting off blackflies and mosquitos to find a stand the plants growing in a spot they’ve decided on, with the flowers seeming to glow almost with a light of their own, especially if you arrive in evening light.
These two terms would seem to mean the same thing—but they don’t! The boreal forest is the wooded country of the far north, stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador to Alaska. It has an Old World counterpart in the vast taiga of northern Europe and Siberia, although the tree species are not the same. We often hear of the boreal coniferous forest, and this is true to a degree; the dominant trees are white and black spruce and, mostly east of Hudson Bay, balsam fir. But there are also expanses of birch woodland, aspen, and cottonwood, as well as enormous peatlands, largely devoid of trees, that are often called muskeg in Canada.
In the Northern Rivers Land Trust area, boreal forest is at its southern limit, and it occurs mainly along ridgelines above 2,000 feet or so, like the Lowell Mountains and Woodbury Mountain, and in cold hollows and valley floors such as Bear Swamp, in Wolcott. You can walk into these areas and, within a few hundred feet, be hard pressed to distinguish the ecosystem from that of southern Labrador—especially since the return of the moose!
In the sense that the term is usually used, the northern forest is found mainly in northern New England, New York State, and in adjacent Canada. (This latter is demonstrated by the fact that the Province of Quebec makes several times more maple syrup than all the New England states together.) The idea of the Great Northern Forest has gained a good deal of traction in environmental circles, as the northern states have begun to work together to protect what is the defining ecosystem of the region.
We often talk of the northern hardwood forest. This is no more an accurate description than boreal coniferous forest. Many of the characteristic trees, and woodland types, of the northern forest are coniferous. Great stands of white pines dominate the drier uplands and are interspersed with beech and maple. Ancient hemlocks shade the moist valley floors, and white cedar wetlands occur wherever the substrate is not too acid. Still, the most characteristic trees are deciduous, flowering hardwoods: sugar maple, red maple, beech, cherry, birch, and, mostly south of our area, red oak.
The northern forest of the Adirondacks is cut off from that of New England by the Champlain Valley, whose oak and hickory-rich woods have a more southern affinity—with the Appalachians and the Ohio River Valley. And the St Lawrence lowlands create a similar situation between the US and southern Canada.
The boreal forest is always under a certain amount of economic pressure for the production of paper pulp and construction lumber—as well as peat for the horticultural trade. There are still enormous portions of Canada and Siberia that are untapped, and our local boreal forest tracts tend to be small and difficult of access, although industrial wind projects put the ridgeline ecosystems in grave danger. The recovery rate of a lowland boreal forest tract is surprisingly rapid. Fifty years after a logging operation, it is often hard to find evidence of the harvest, and there are many natural kinds of disturbance, such as fire and insect damage, that have always been part of the equation, and which the forest takes in stride.
The northern forest, on the other hand, is a resource unique to our part of the world. When you see cherry or maple cabinets in high-end kitchens in England, you know that the lumber or veneer originated within, at most, a few hundred miles of us—it can be found nowhere else. And the northern forest seems to have much less tolerance for alien insects and diseases. The American chestnut, which was extirpated by the imported chestnut blight in the early 20th century, occurred mostly to the south of our area. But American elm was once a significant element of the northern forest, and the last isolated remnants in our area are succumbing to the dutch elm disease. It’s hard to find a healthy and unblemished beech tree, and our wonderful, towering white ash trees, as well as the black “basket ash” of the swamps, are in deadly danger from the emerald ash borer, which seems to be making its way inexorably from the Midwest.
The hardwood forest is slow in reclaiming its original habitat here in northern New England. Fields that were abandoned well over 100 years ago still often support mainly old pasture spruce, ragged red maples, and straggling grey birch, mixed with goldenrod and hardhack. It will be many generations, if ever, that there will be extensive areas of anything like old growth hardwood forest in the Northern Rivers area. There are a few places where we can get at least an idea of what it would be like. It’s worth encouraging their protection and expansion, even if we ourselves will never see the result.
On-line journal VTDigger featured NRLT Board member Steve Young and his botany expertise in a recent article by Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life. Read more here.
About half a billion years ago, plants began to colonize the land. For the first few million years, none were more than a few inches tall, since, like today’s mosses, their bodies contained no conductive tissue. There was no way to lift water from the ground to leaves or to return nutrients to cells beneath the ground, where no sunlight could reach and allow photosynthesis. Once the interior plumbing of the vascular system evolved, the sky was the limit. Gigantic, primitive, spore-bearing trees covered much of the earth by the time the first land vertebrates laid their soft, vulnerable eggs in the coal swamps, long before the earliest dinosaurs walked the earth.
Very early in their history, the vascular plants split into two groups. One of these has been wildly successful and now includes all the seed plants—flowering plants and conifers and their relatives, as well as ferns and horsetails. The second group flourished in the far distant past, but is now represented only by a few plants that are, in many respects, living fossils. The most conspicuous of these is the clubmosses. These have traditionally been considered to belong to a single genus, Lycopodium. (Modern authors have split it into several groups, but we needn’t bother with this here.) Lycopodium translates as wolf’s foot, and one of our commonest species is L. clavatum, wolf’s claw clubmoss. (Clavatum means ‘with a club,’ referring to the club-shaped spore bearing organs that give clubmosses their common name. It should be said immediately that clubmoss is a misnomer; true mosses are non-vascular plants.
There is probably no better place in the world to become familiar with clubmosses than here in northern Vermont. Although they are low-growing and relegated to the forest floor, they can dominate this layer, forming a sheet of evergreen cover that may extend over large areas. A fine example of this is at the Barr Hill Nature Preserve in Greensboro, where L. annotinum—shining clubmoss—makes a thick, continuous blanket under the spruce groves. But similar situations are widespread, and other forest types have their own, often somewhat less conspicuous, species. In fact it is possible to find eight to ten species within our area, the exact number depending on which botanist’s classification system is used. Most of the species are extremely widespread over the earth. I found colonies of L. clavatum on Kerguelen Island, which lies south of the Indian Ocean and over 1,000 miles from the nearest continent—Antarctica! Many of our species can be found in Alaska, Europe, or Siberia, but I’ve never seen them growing as richly and conspicuously as they do here in Vermont.
Clubmosses are spore-bearing plants, and the spores germinate into tiny, inconspicuous plantlets called gametophytes, which even most botanists have never seen in the wild. The gametophytes may live for many years, ultimately producing eggs and sperms, whose union results in tiny new green embryos, which slowly grow and spread to form the familiar colonies of our forests and old pastures. These colonies are really single plants, very extensive and, presumably, very old, although I know of no data on just how many decades—or centuries—have elapsed since their beginnings.
Among the best things about clubmosses is that they are abundant, are relatively easy to identify, and the presence of individual species is often associated with a particular habitat type, so it’s easy to predict which may be found where. There are also some relatively uncommon species, and it’s always exciting to come upon one, or to learn exactly what ecological settings in which to look for them. One of our species, L. inundatum—bog clubmoss—is best sought on the surface of the sterile soil of scraped road cuts a few years after the bulldozer has been through. Look for it where you see the sticky tentacles of sundew leaves and the September flowers of ladies’ tresses orchid—I’ve never found it in a bog.
Clubmosses are traditionally, and incorrectly, often called fern allies, and a good book for learning how to identify them is the Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns. The pen and ink drawings by Laura Louise Foster are both botanically impeccable and artistically exquisite. – Steve Young