The Lady Slippers
“Guess what I saw on my walk this morning? Pink lady slippers! If you aren’t too terribly busy with work this week, drive down here, and I’ll show them to you,” my sister’s text message read.
Last Friday, I pulled into her driveway around 8:30 a.m. Together, she and I loaded our dogs in her car and drove over to a nearby park. Just 20 feet onto a trail, Audrey paused, fidgeted, and waited for a couple to pass us.
“Look over there,” she whispered and pointed inconspicuously.
And there it was — one lone pink lady slipper, blooming her little heart out, as hikers and bikers rushed by her not even glancing in her direction. Audrey has seen them before on her walks through the woods, but it was my first encounter. My mouth fell open at the sight of the little plant — so lovely and so delicate — hiding in plain sight.
“I noticed that one the other day, but there are a bunch deeper in the woods,” she said, allowing me to have a private moment with the plant.
Also known as the moccasin flower, the lady slipper is a native orchid that grows wild in eastern North America, and yes, the flowers of the plant resemble ballerina slippers. Their numbers are declining because their habitats are shrinking as increased residential development and sprawl take over their preferred domains. In Georgia, they grow on sloped, shady acidic spots in the foothills of the state and northward.
They are mentioned in Native American folklore, where it is told that a young maiden ran barefoot in the snow in search of medicine to save her tribe, but she collapsed in the forest before she could complete her mission. Her feet were frozen and swollen from her arduous journey. Later, lady slipper plants emerged from the soil where her feet had rested, and the blooms took on the appearance of slippers (or moccasins).
Five minutes down the path, my sister said, “Okay, start looking around and see if you can spot them yourself.”
The exercise was like searching for Easter eggs in the piney woods around my Grandmother Jarriel’s farmhouse or playing the Hot and Cold game of my youth — warmer, warmer, warmer, you’re so close that you’re on fire!
I scanned the understory looking for pale pink blooms as we talked. I was mid-sentence in some story as we came around a bend in the trail that hugged a hillside, and my eyes moved upward, and there they were — a hundred of them watching the people strut by below them on the footpath.
“I see them!” I said, instantly stopping in the center of the trail. My eyes moved around through the woods seeing another and another continued from page
and another as my heartbeat accelerated.
Audrey and I both feel passionately about keeping their secret. Their preservation requires them to propagate, and the only way they can cast seeds is to be left alone. People want to pick them, and that’s detrimental to the species. Others try to transplant them to their backyard environments, but that almost never works. They rely on a certain fungus in the soil to grow and thrive. The fungus breaks open the lady slipper seeds and attaches to it, passing on its nutrients so that the orchid can flourish. When the orchid is mature, it shares its nutrients with the fungus. They help each other.
I looked around, and when I was certain no one was watching, I shimmied up the hill to get a closer look. Each plant has two base leaves and a main stem that shoots up eight to twelve inches from the ground. At the top, a pastel pink pouch with darker magenta veins juts out, underneath something that looks a little like a leafy street lamp. They are some of the oddest plants I’ve ever seen, but they are spectacular.
There’s a passage in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” that I think about often. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” Shug says in the story. I believe this to be true about the color purple, about clouds, about birds, about trees, about everything in the natural world. There’s so much beauty around us, and it is designed for us to marvel at and appreciate, but we have to slow down. We have to look for it sometimes.
I think it pleases the universe when we see something beautiful, stop for a moment, take it all in, and smile — just as Audrey and I stopped and adored those pink lady slippers last Friday.