Friday, May 17, 2013

Running into a Stranger from a Missed Exit - Deception, Biodiversity, and the Sexiest Flower Around

~I’d rather have honest eyes, but being full of cunning and guise is what it takes to keep certain other organisms alive. 

After three and a half long, draining, and super informative and inspirational workshops and talks with great folks at the Virginia State Parks Ranger Academy: 2013 Spring Interpretive Workshop, it was time to head back home and prepare for one of my last days of teaching high school for the 2012-2013 school year.

Part of the Soar Program, including this one-winged eagle
I was reflecting on some of the sessions and wise words from Interpreters and Educators, cruising up I-81, music playing, arm out the window, and before I knew it I MISSED my 118 Exit for Blacksburg. By the time realization occurred, it was too late.

Brain mushed from data-overload, being underslept and drained, my mind jerked about momentarily, but sometimes, rather than curse your situation (knowing it is miles before a turn around) I try to view it as a blessing in disguise. Call it weak justification for inattentiveness, call it a chance. I once witnessed one of the biggest shooting stars of my life because of a wrong turn.

Moaning at that moment of ‘wasted time’ in disdain, I tried to look for a bright side. I’d seen over 20 wildflowers over the past 2 days in the rich mountains of Hungry Mother State Park, but there was one member of our Appalachian community I have yet to be graced by thus far this year. The timing seemed appropriate so I made a detour. And there might just be a few tasty morels left.

Wild Geranium in Hungry Mother State Park
Wild Iris along a stream in Hungry Mother State Park
An unusually early rhododendron (outlier)

Nope, no morels, they have passed their fruiting stage here, but my original hope came true, in a most graceful and elegant way.

Morel from earlier in season

And now I sit in the woods, a brook rolling by, a thrush singing in his smooth and fluid way, ferns waving in fractal fancy, and beside me, one of the rarest gems inside the biodiverse living bounty of our Appalachian mountains, the yellow lady slipper. Sometimes missing your turn winds up restoring your mind and spirit. The world is funny and serendipitous like that sometimes. 

The yellow lady slipper, member of the orchid family, shape is exquisitely elegant, demanding respect and awe from anyone who adorns flowers, and getting some from even those who don’t. Twisted sepals more pronounced in this rarer breed compared to the pink lady slipper, it is a special plant indeed.

Yellow Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper from elsewhere for comparison

God and Mother Nature felt particularly sexy when the lady slippers were made. I sit in the middle of three, awestruck, unable to withhold a grin. I wonder if an insect will fall for her age old trick, a trap with no reward, forced to deposit and brush against pollen through the only escape route. Then another flower has to be lucky enough to tempt and fool an insect again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, and pollinate a living rarity.

Spirals of serene 

Nectar for pollination is an almost ageless trade, a simple and fine example of mutualism where both partners benefit for and from their interaction. Pollination, many a person’s first real experience of different organisms being dependent on one another in nature, that simple bee or butterfly landing on a flower.

But certain plants do survive by trickery as well, in a variety of shapes and forms. Some orchids fall in this category. And if the trick isn’t fooling enough, that plant may enter the realm of genetic weakness from purely vegetative reproduction, and some fall even further into extinction. It’s survival of the fittest at its simplest. Deception comes with a price and risk.

Imprisoned insect - click picture for larger image

That nice bright yellow, a fragrance, and a landing platform all attract bees and other insects. But no nectar is there in return for the uncertain chance of pollination. One member isn’t holding up their part of the beneficial bargain. Hairs and the different shape of their flower force most insects out exactly where the flower wants. Translucent spots guide imprisoned insects. Nature does have her deceptive side now and again, keeping others and us on our toes.

Unsustainable collection and habitat loss have disastrous effects on this very curvaceous and attractive flower. People try to transplant the flowers to their landscapes, but without proper mycorrhizal fungus (mutualism again) common to their habitat’s soil, attempts are often in vain and the flowers die, no longer a perennial but compost instead.

The roots take year to develop, undergoing an intense confluence and union with their fungal partners before being a seedling; another reason landscape germination is difficult. It is still much longer, sometimes 5 – 10 additional years, before some flower in nature! It is a fragile gem of Appalachia, and something to cherish when one is lucky enough to be in the company of.

Interestingly enough they have always been used medicinally, but most herbalists and naturalists, including myself, warn against picking and using them any longer because population numbers are so painfully low. I am unsure if a doe or a greedy person clipped one of these few around me. My hope is that it was a deer.

The bloodroot, toothwort, and trillium around me have come and gone, leaves leftover like subtle whispers of their recently colorful and seeking selves. The lady slippers are patient, seeming to wait politely for the other flowers to bloom and disappear before bursting with color and temptation. Perhaps it is a strategy for survival. Perhaps every action is. 


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