The Call of the Wild


I spent all the next year in frenzied anticipation of their return.  However, spring came and no lady’s slippers.  The house next door had been built in the intervening summer.  And though their bed appeared undisturbed, who knows what bad things had happened to them in the form of runoff or disgust?  The sexiest of flowers in appearance, pink lady’s slippers are great ascetics in temperament, so uninterested in all things bodily that they can only be pollinated by particularly willful bumblebees…so rarefied in their concerns that they don’t even bother feeding their young, producing bare-refrigerator seedpods and instead employing a particular symbiotic fungus to nurse their seedlings along for years.   No fungus, no babies.  I never saw them again anywhere in those woods.

Which only confirmed my already scorching opinion about the Jersey civilization I was growing up in: One touch, and anything authentic or beautiful vanished.

The irony is, if I owned an acre in suburban New Jersey, as my parents and their neighbors did, I’d treat it far more ruthlessly than they did.  I’d fence the perimeter for privacy and mow down most of the oak and beech trees.  I’d put in a huge grey pool and a terrace and a big vegetable garden and greenhouse and large flower-beds full of acid-colored perennials that would match the acid-colored clothes I’d buy at Bloomingdale’s and the flaming red tones I’d ask a Hackensack colorist to squeeze into my hair.  (God, I’m scaring myself, this all sounds so enjoyable!)  And I’d civilize the stream-side, and in the process, almost certainly drive away the wild plants that so delighted me as a kid, the skunk cabbages, the jack-in-the-pulpits, the jewel-weeds, and the little yellow trout-lilies with their delicious spotted leaves.  So I suppose I should be glad that my parents didn’t garden.

The only thrill I’ve ever had as adult that was comparable to the thrill of stumbling upon those lady’s slippers occurred about ten years ago, at 5 am on a Monday morning as I was barreling from upstate New York to Boston for work.  I stopped at a Stewart’s shop in New Lebanon for a pee and a cup of coffee before heading onto the Mass Turnpike.  For some reason, I didn’t get right back into my car, but took my coffee and wandered out back.  It was barely dawn, the sky still pinkish and grey.  There growing down the grassy sides of a ditch were thousands and thousands of wild bloodroots in bloom, with their flowers still shut-up for the night like tiny clams, but glowing white, white, white in the weird light, impossibly delicate above the plant’s single scalloped leaf, the absolute picture of the wild and fresh.  Sanguinaria canadensis. They took my breath away.

These are available, too, at a reasonable price for the singles, but $25 or so for the absurdly beautiful doubles.  They, too, look like a sure bet to kick the bucket in my yard, but I’m tempted anyway.


  1. Here in north east PA, the only wild lady’s slippers that I’ve seen are behind deer fences on nature preserves. The deer have eaten the rest – they may have eaten those by your parents’ house especially if the new homeowners liked the idea of feeding Bambi.

    BTW… I’ll be rounding up the ethical sources of lady’s slipper orchids in a future post.

    Also, there’s a gorgeous form of the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, with pale pink flowers available at $20 from Thimble Farms (

  2. Graham, thank you for steering me to Fraser’s Thimble Farms. What a great source for not very common plants.

    I was, however, highly amused by the catalog copy for the cypripedium or lady’s slipper section: “In nature, they often grow in bogs, but they tend not to like soggy conditions.” Translation: Almost too fussy to live.

  3. I’d be a lot more inclined to label a plant ‘almost too fussy to live’ if it were bred for the garden and yet steadfastly refused to thrive there — roses, for example — rather than the species form of a plant that evolved on its own for a specialized ecological niche that is difficult to mimic in a garden.

    I got my M&Z catalog in January, and the cypripedium looked tempting — but ‘ooh’ quickly turned to ‘D’oh!’ when I saw those prices.

  4. We’ve had great success with a number of terrestrial orchids semi-naturalised in the garden. Not cypripedium but dactylorhiza, spiranthes, bletilla and epipedium have all gone well. I think it seems to pay off to plant a number (all obtained from suitable ethical sources) in a clump – we seem to have Dacts coming up all over now.

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