Among the orchids

ladyslipper patch

My favorite place in London was Kew Gardens. I visited twice and shot some 300 photos, mostly inside the three enormous glass houses. Kew hosts the oldest and largest collection of living plants in the world, representing some 30,000 species, and for a plant lover like me, it’s something damn close to paradise.

pink ladyslipper side view

I was astonished by the variety of strange and wonderful forms. I spent three quarters of an hour just admiring the different types of cycads in the Palm House. The orchid rooms in the Princess of Wales Conservatory took my breath away.

trapped ladyslipper leaf

So you’d think that coming home to my own woods would be a bit of a letdown. We have a single orchid species blooming right now, the pink lady’s-slipper, and yes, it’s fairly spectacular if you’ve never seen it before, but it blooms in profusion every year.

kissing the ground

Individual plants can contort in surprising or amusing ways, but I’ve seen it all before — and captured it in photos numerous times.

pink ladyslipper frontal

So why did this morning find me on my belly in the leaf duff once again, snapping still more pictures? This last photo might give a bit of a clue, actually. Ladyslippers are among the sexiest of orchids. They’re like little goddesses. I went and looked through my photos of Kew orchids and realized that none of them had impressed me quite so much — but of course it isn’t a fair comparison. Seen in its native habitat, the (nearly) complete ecological matrix in which it evolved, a plant can’t help eclipse its hothouse brethren. It’s the difference between actually visiting ancient Athens versus seeing the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum.

agave and orchid maidens at Kew Gardens

If the ladyslippers reminded me of anything from my recent trip, it wasn’t plants so much as some people dressed as plants: one of the four stilt-walkers we saw at Kew last Sunday was, in fact, outfitted with a pink orchid headdress.

pink ladyslipper rear view

That’s because when you get to know flowers really well, they do become a lot more like persons, fellow residents rather than mere objects to study or admire. Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t diminish, but becomes augmented by a more complete knowledge of habits and habitation. The plants’ autonomy and fitness, here among their native pollinators and seed dispersers, begin to impress themselves on one’s imagination. These are wild flowers; there’s none of that dull passivity of domesticated stock. One begins to feel that one’s gaze is, if not exactly returned, at least acknowledged in some way — especially with orchids, which do seem like the most gifted of all plants. They make fascinating neighbors. I wouldn’t trade them for a forest full of elves.

22 Comments


  1. Dave, a stunning post on quite a few levels. First, that last paragraph is as pretty and succinct a case as I’ve read in some time for or against anything.

    The comparison of the orchids with the stilt-walkers made me laugh. Wonderful!

    And that photo of the ladyslipper you describe as sexy: such a bust and legs, and the thin waste, the sensuous, long arms and hair, even the Grecian nose and slender fingers (or has my imagination completely taken over?). I love my rose, but oh-you-kid!

    And the fun juxtaposition of the Kew Gardens text with the Plummer’s Hollow photos. My first skim-through, I figured I was looking at Kew Gardens pictures. I was set up for your lines under the third photo to make their point: I experienced quite the opposite of a letdown since I suddenly realized I had been marveling at good ol’ Plummer’s Hollow.

    But, Dave, that last paragraph . . .

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    1. Peter, that’s not a comment, it’s a book review for a blog post! Thanks, man. And I’m glad that resemblance wasn’t just in my own imagination. One does have to wonder why roses and not orchids became the preeminent floral symbol in the West, but considering how vulnerable orchids are to over-harvesting, I’d say it’s a damn good thing for them that they enjoyed so many centuries of relative neglect by lovers and poets.

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  2. It’s hard describe past Peter’s rapt attention, that I fully share, even though I love the lads.

    Let’s simply admire the photo’s title “pink ladyslipper frontal” and wonder that you hadn’t included “full.”

    Enraptured. That’s me.

    (I’ve not seen a lady slipper in the flesh, mores the shame.)

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    1. Glad you liked, Deb. So you’re saying that even a straight woman finds those flowers alluring? That’s some powerful mojo then.

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  3. Yes, the last paragraph rocks. But it also strikes deep into my heart and makes me pause and ponder on the way in which we garden here at Ty Isaf. Don’t get me wrong, I love my big old herbaceous border, so carefully wrought and cultivated, but there are other ways in which to surround oneself with a botanic universe, and I think that there is much to learn from your particular take on the world Dave.

    Talking of which, I wanted so much to show you the Mouse Tail Arum that grows her down next to the lawn in the shade of the caryopteris, but in all the hustle and bustle I forgot. The tails are fantastically long and whippy, sometimes spiralling and coiling in marvellous configurations. It’s a tiny though star plant in the garden, given to me four years ago by John Warren… whose own specimen has since vanished… and doing particularly well here.

    http://travelmarx.blogspot.com/2009/04/arisarum-proboscideum-mouse-tail-arum.html

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    1. Very cool. I do love the Arum family; they too are seemingly great individualists with some bizarre habits. I imagine a bed of mouse tails must be quite a sight.

      As for your gardening philosophy, I think you guys do have a spectacular wild garden in the form of that gorge. As long as you continue to keep the livestock out, I don’t imagine you’ll need to do much else (though John would know better than I do, I’m sure).

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  4. Beautiful, thanks Dave. We don’t have wild flowers as grand as your ladyslipper here, but we do have some common spotted orchids nearby.

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    1. Well, according the links rr shared below, your ladyslipper was once common too…

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  5. I have nothing new to add to what has been said except, “rejoice!”

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  6. Yeah, I too first assumed that these were all photos taken at Kew Gardens. Of course, I have the excuse that most of the flora of Plummers Hollow is as unknown and exotic to me as anything at Kew. The ladyslippers are fabulous.

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    1. Thanks, Jean. I wasn’t sure it worked to write it that way or not, with the reader at first deliberatedly misled. Glad to hear it did.

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  7. What a great post, Dave. Right now, as I work on my small community plot of cultivated perennials, my thoughts are of the woodlands where Mom and I used to walk, woodlands much like yours. I envy you those lady-slippers, though. There is something extraordinary about sharing one’s world not only with wild fauna, but les fleurs sauvages, visiting them each year as if visiting old friends who you care about very much indeed, but who exist not at your behest but simply because they are.

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  8. It’s a zoo for plants, of course, with walls and fences and perspex barriers. With something of the same sense of melancholy, for me, over the sense of captivity, but in attenuated form. There’s nothing to beat wriggling in the leaf duff to capture the unfettered. The frontal picture reminded me of the Venus figurines from Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

    We do, of course, have the lady slipper orchid in the UK. Only it’s so rare it’s against the law even to touch it. It’s flowering now too. No crawling through the leaf duff to photograph that.

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    1. Yes, exactly, those Paleolithic Venuses!

      Fascinating links. We have a yellow ladyslipper in this area, too, though it doesn’t grow on the mountain; it’s fairly common yet. But it’s scary how the mania for orchids has driven so many species to the brink of extinction in the wild. I was thinking I had been too hard on the urge to domesticate, but now I’m thinking I wasn’t nearly harsh enough.

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  9. Dave, I wish I’d been on the tour of Kew Gardens with you, I would have learned so much. I love the place but my botanical ignorance is pretty comprehensive and my responses limited to exclamations such as “Ooooh!”
    Glad you ran into humans trying to be plants but they’re no match for the real thing. Your photos of sexy orchids are superb – actually they do look sort of human.

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    1. Thanks, Natalie, and yes — I wish you’d been along! Next time we shall mount a bloggers’ expedition there.

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  10. For some reason your blog ate my earlier comment, I think. It was, needless to say, witty, erudite, heart-warming, profound, unexpected and altogether fabulous. Sadly it’s now gone forever. Much like the lady slipper orchid in the UK which is so rare it’s a criminal offence to touch one.

    We shall see if this far inferior version makes it through the shredder. There were only two links in the above-mentioned gorgeous one, I promise.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know — I just went and found it in the spam folder. (I usually delete them without checking; I get over 1000 a day.)

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  11. Have you read Susan Orleans’ “The Orchid Thief?”

    I loved this post, Dave, and all of the photos.

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