Ontario's Blockbuster Wild Orchids

[A Lady's Slipper Orchid]

Talk about accurate names ~ Showy Lady's Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium Reginae) really are showy. From Newfoundland to Manitoba, in the northeastern and northcentral U.S., and following the Appalachians southward, they stand 35 to 90 cm (1 to 3 feet) high and are topped by gorgeous pink-and-white flowers. They can live for 50 years, which they pretty well have to because their reproduction relies so much on chance: they can't self-pollinate and have no nectar to attract syrup-sucking bugs, so they have to live in the hope that wandering insects will blunder into them.

Very few flowers get pollinated, but when they do, a single flower can produce up to 35,000 seeds. This sounds like a good start, but the wind can't blow all of them to the soggy, shady habitat they like. Then it can take up to seven years for their root systems and first leaves to develop.

[Showy Lady's Slipper Orchids]

At Norah and Joe Purden's farm in Lanark County, some 100 km (60 miles) west of Ottawa, these orchids got the generously helping hand they needed to thrive. In the late 1930s, at a time when wetlands were usually cursed, ignored, drained, or filled, Joe Purden recognized that they were national treasures.

What is now called the Purden Conservation Area features a particular type of wetland called a "fen". The fen has brush and sparse trees; it's very peaty, and its water is less acidic than bog water. The Showies love it!

Working with the resident beavers, Joe Purden controlled the water levels and judiciously thinned the branches and trees, giving the orchids more of their kind of real estate. He also transplanted orchids, moving them from heavy shade to sun-dappled areas where they had better chances of blooming and being pollinated.

[A Wetland Fen That Orchids Love]

In 1984 the area was transferred to the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (yes, there's a Mississippi River in Ontario, no relation to the American one). The MVCA has continued Joe Purden's work. It checks that the beavers are still being good housekeepers in the pond; it keeps up the work of thinning brush and trees to improve and increase the orchid habitat, and it transplants unhappy orchids to better spots.

The MVCA's delicate management also includes pollinating some of the orchids artificially and planting good companions for them, flowering shrubs and wetland wildflowers that can do what the Showies cannot ~ attract insects, which means that the orchids' pollination chances increase as the numbers of roaming insects increase. The colony has grown now to a stunning 16,000 orchids, probably the largest single colony of Showy Lady's Slipper Orchids in North America.

[Purdon Conservation Area Boardwalk]

The Purden Conservation Area has a lookout, a picnic area, and a wheelchair accessible trail that links with the main, self-guided trail. There's no charge to visit, and much of the trail is board walk. Visit any time of year, but aim for mid-June to mid-July, when the masses of flowers prove that they really do deserve their name!

For more information, contact the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, P.O. Box 268, Lanark, Ontario, K0G 1K0; Phone (613) 259-2421; fax (613) 259-3468; Email mississippi@superaje.com

Your comments are welcome at dhaaheim at telus dot net

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