Floral Heartthrob

The weather is frothy and undecided, but there is no ambivalence in the burgeoning green of plants hitting their stride. In honor of this early wildflower season, I’m going to shake off my vertebrate-centric worldview and write about my favorite flower. In fact, I’ve never forced myself to pick a favorite flower. The choice is a moving target and context dependent; it reminds me of trying to pick a favorite dessert. There’s the small thrill of stumbling across that first tiny yellow wood violet in February, the startling white of a trillium in coursing March rain when real spring seems like a dream, or the huge patch of fawn lilies that bloom every April along our regular Friday running route into Hendricks Park, when I swear next week I’ll bring the camera and never do.

Mom taught my brothers and me the common names of the prettiest spring flowers that grew in the second-growth forest behind our house. We learned them as spring beauty and lamb’s tongue and Johnny-jump-up. But among all those remembrances, there is an indelible wildflower memory that supersedes all others. When I was very young, my Aunt Catherine took me “lady slipper” picking. Folks also call them fairy slippers, and I now know them as Calypso orchids (Calypso bulbosa). These are my floral heartthrobs. The bloom is no larger than a quarter, a half fringe of impossibly pink petals standing erect above a mottled pink and white “slipper” too small to fit over the end of my pinky. The tiny bloom is perched two or three inches above the ground on a stem that seems too thin to support it. Calypso orchids are blushing droplets of pure plant sex.

My Aunt Catherine and I walked along a flat, mossy floor of coniferous forest somewhere in the Upper Smith River Valley where my maternal ancestors landed in the late 1800’s. We picked Calypso orchids by the fistful. Periodically we returned to her gray Volvo wagon to gather the dainty orchids together and wrap them in wet paper towels. I remember breathing in the aroma of those bouquets, and I’m still in awe of their collective beauty and fragrance. Returning home, I gave Mom a bouquet, and she gratefully placed it in a small water-filled vase in the center of the dining room table. Aunt Catherine divvyed the rest of the blossoms out to friends and other family members. We must have picked a couple of hundred.

In those days, I was naïve to the destructiveness of Catherine’s generosity. Years afterward, Mom went back to college and took a botany course from Freeman Rowe at Lane Community College, in which she was required to make a pressed plant collection. But Calypso orchids were strictly off limits. This is because picking even just the bloom can disrupt the sensitive system of corms and root hairs, often killing the plant. Calypso orchids live on an energetic knife-edge, growing in the forest shade, a single heart-shaped leaf their only organ of photosynthesis in marginal light. They survive in part because of a tight association between mycorrhizal fungi that assist in nutrient transfer between the orchid’s corms and roots and the needle duff in which they are precariously anchored.

Only now am I able to put that day of lady slipper picking in a larger context. My ancestors came to the Oregon Coast Range to make their way as extractionists, removing and milling the forests, growing orchards and gardens on the cleared land, supplementing their husbandry with deer that grew plentiful and fat on brushy clearcuts. To them everything was here to be used, either consumed directly as calories or sold to provide money for getting along in life. This was my aunt’s heritage—to her the dainty Calypso orchids were another resource to be extracted, if only for their transient beauty and sweet bouquet, a vehicle for her generosity. This has been my heritage too: I am the end product of four generations of stories built on extraction.

But the story has a sequel. One spring some years ago we learned that the property next door to ours on Upper Smith River Road was to be clearcut. So on an April afternoon, Kim and I went lady slipper picking. But this time we took trowels and cardboard boxes into the doomed second growth. We dug deeply into the soil in order to fully remove not only the blossoms, but also the corms and roots and leaves and mycorrhizae on which the plants depend. We transported the flowers to a nearby patch of old-growth forest above the cabin and carefully dug them into a thick blanket of moss in the shady cathedral floor. Transplanting is never recommended, but had we done nothing the orchids would have been killed by logging or sunlight or both. In the larger scheme of logging and orchid population dynamics, those thirty or so flowers that we saved from the scorching sun now ravaging the logged hillside were probably insignificant. But when I walk into the dim old forest in spring and watch for the first blooming transplants, when I count each orchid marked with a small upright stick, my heart tells me it was worth it.

I’ve heard that hindsight has 20/20 vision, but I’m unconvinced. Mostly I have questions. If not for that destructive outing with my aunt so long ago, would I have developed the deep connection to Calypso orchids that compelled me to spend an afternoon decades later trying to save as many as I could? Or would Mom’s love of wildflowers and what I learned second-hand from her botany class been enough to separate me from the attitudes of three previous generations? Would Calypso bulbosa have become my darling wildflower? Would I be telling you this story? I can’t say. For me the emergent truth is that we need our stories to remain connected to each other and to our world. Nearly all of us are products of an extraction-based past that has ravaged the earth. Now we find ourselves in tumultuous times that demand new stories. We must turn and face our past squarely and with as much honesty as we can muster, forgive what has not worked, then carry the rest into a sane and ethical future.