Land Of Lady’s Slippers

March 1, 2001 by Marla Fletcher
Showy Lady’s Slipper orchids add light and beauty to the Purdon Conservation Area near Ottawa.

You have to wonder what Joe Purdon would have thought as a hot pink tour bus comes crunching in off Concession Road 8 in Lanark, Ont., shattering the morning quiet of the old woodlot. The emerging visitors–some two dozen garden club members toting cameras, hats and bug spray–chat enthusiastically as they head for the wooden hut that houses a humble one-seater.

Welcome to Purdon Conservation Area, 25 hectares of former farmland and swampy woods located 75 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. A posted sign implores: “Please stay on the boardwalk trail” and “Do not pick the flowers,” referring to a vast colony of Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) within.

Is this springtime visit what the genial McDonalds Corners boatbuilder-craftsman had in mind when he offered part of his property to the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, MVCA, in the early 1980s, hoping to preserve the precious native orchids he had nurtured through five decades? Probably. He wrote of his cause in 1979: “I worry about what will happen to this stand of orchids when I am not able to look after them….It would be too bad to have these lost to future generations.” His was no small collection, either. It was a colony he had developed from a few dozen plants in the early ’30s to well over 15,000.

By the time he died of cancer in 1982, at 67, the value of this natural spot had been recognized and conservation plans were taking shape. So a handful of fellow plant-lovers, who will admire but not touch, would probably suit Joe Purdon just fine.

Never mind that this cool, wet spring has slowed plant growth and delayed blooms; what’s there is awe-inspiring. These visitors can well imagine the rest.

A hush settles in as semi-retired botanist and volunteer tour guide Ted Mosquin explains that in another week or so, one-third of the orchid colony’s stems–now 16,000–will be in bloom. He quickly sketches the history and significance of this “unique and exceptionally beautiful place…almost like a shrine,” then the group is off. There’s a 400-metre boardwalk leading through the heart of it all, and–for the more adventurous–a short climb later to a lookout over the mud pond now called Purdon Lake.

While the hardy Showy Lady’s Slipper isn’t endangered, it does demand just the right growing conditions. You don’t see it everywhere. This particular stand is considered the largest single colony in Canada, possibly in North America, but the plant’s range extends from Newfoundland to the southeastern United States and through southern Ontario and Quebec. The semi-shade canopy provided here by cedars, spruces and tamaracks allows optimum light, while the rich muck underfoot feeds rhizomatous roots.

“Ohhhh, look!” breathes an admirer when a cluster of bobbing pink-and-white pouches pops into view. She’s right, it’s pretty amazing. For a plant that takes five to seven years to flower and lacks any means of self-pollination–or the nectar to attract insect pollinators–its presence is something of a miracle. Microbiologist and orchid specialist Marilyn Light has said she’s fascinated by orchids because they’re such determined survivors. An Ottawa-based researcher who chairs the Orchid Specialist Group, North American Region, Light has been digging into orchids for 30 years.

“Some of the orchids I study can live (apparently nourished by fungi)…for many years before they produce a shoot and emerge above the ground.” She notes that fewer than one per cent of any terrestrial orchid seeds ever germinate and grow into flowering plants. This curious fact is borne out at Purdon. Although each plant is capable of producing 15,000 to more than 35,000 per capsule, pollination is relatively low. Variations in water and light levels are suspected to be determining factors. These kinds of variables form the puzzle that keeps Light absorbed, and challenged to learn more. She appreciates what Purdon Conservation Area offers: A large colony of her favourite flower, protected in a natural place that “has been set aside for posterity” and is ripe for keen scientific observation.

In 1993, Light was the producer of a video entitled For the Love of Orchids–In Living Memory. Done by the Canadian Orchid Congress in association with the Ottawa Orchid Society, with technical assistance from CBC Ottawa, the 26-minute account of the Purdon story is dedicated to Joe “for his effort, vision and caring.” Light was also instrumental in assembling volunteers from the Kingston, Ont., and Ottawa orchid societies in 1998-99 to conduct an orchid mapping project at the site, updating the 1985 count that was part of an overall management plan done by Mosquin Bio-Information Limited for the conservation authority.

Back along the boardwalk, camera shutters are clicking while the odd bumblebee tumbles in and out of blossoms. Each brocade pouch seems a tiny piece of perfection, capped by three or four small white banners. These are the upper petals and sepals, delicately calling to mind the points of a fragile paper pinwheel. Some people reach out, and are surprised to find the broad, ribbed leaves coarse and hairy. The plants are easy to spot, standing 35 to 90 centimetres tall. The blooms we see today boast pale to deep pink-and-white combinations, but we’re told they are sometimes carmine red or, occasionally, pure white. There can be up to four flowers on a plant. When they’re happy, the orchids can live 25 years or more.

This happens because one of the three types of wetland occurring at Purdon is a fen–a spongy, peaty place that is usually wet but never smelly or stagnant. “It’s a fen, not a bog,” Mosquin emphasizes. He goes on to explain that there’s a steady flow of groundwater in and out, fed by rainfall seeping slowly down through the chalky cliffs surrounding Purdon Lake. Layers of decomposing peat near the base of the area create slightly alkaline soil ideal for this orchid species. As one brochure available on site points out, “(the) soil, vegetation and boardwalk all float on an underground pond of saturated organic material.”

A long-established beaver dam straddles the creek that drains the pond, and this controls minimum water levels in the fen so the flowers aren’t flooded out in spring or drought-stricken in summer. In addition, conservation authority staff members have installed an overflow pipe in the dam to ensure water levels don’t get too high, and they monitor it on a regular basis.

Site management by the MVCA is low-key and unobtrusive–but vital. Brush is thinned periodically to maintain proper light levels, and conservation education technician Michael Yee says a major clearing of more mature cedar and tamarack trees was done two years ago. It was financed by funds made available to clean up after the terrible ice storm that swept through Eastern Canada and the U.S. In true ecological spirit, ashes from the material that was burned on location were distributed over the ground to release those nutrients into the soil. Water level management is another important role; so is educating the public about the orchids and the site’s other special qualities. This is done via brochures, signs, tours and seasonal interpreters hired for the mid-June to early July peak period. In addition, MVCA oversees the careful hand-pollination each season of some 50 to 100 orchids to ensure continuation of the species and eventually expand the colony.

The conservation authority’s ability to do more is limited by finances. The MVCA receives no government funding for Purdon, relying instead on contributions and volunteer help for many activities. Purdon is just one of its sites; others include the Mill of Kintail Conservation near Almonte, and Morris Island in the Ottawa River near Fitzroy Harbour.

Like all conservation areas, MVCA managers must balance the need to interest and educate the public with concerns about inflicting the hand of man on a natural environment. Yee says they aim for an “ecotourism” focus that maintains a public presence and ties the site into the local economy without depleting or spoiling natural resources, an approach that seems to have worked. The orchids may be distributed differently from one year to the next, but numbers are maintaining–and Purdon attracts many visitors. Remarkably, pilfering and damage to the fen is minimal, perhaps because it’s quite a distance from urban centres and there are many neighbours and regular visitors to watch out for abuse.

People applaud what the conservation authority has been able to do. States Joyce Reddoch, another member of the Ottawa Orchid Society: “If it were left to go and nobody did anything, it would soon be covered over with trees…and the Lady’s Slipper population would go downhill. I think they’ve done well by it, with very limited resources.” Reddoch says the colony is botanically quite significant, particularly when wetlands of all kinds are under siege by rampant urban sprawl. She credits the construction of the boardwalk for making it one of the most accessible places in North America to view the orchid colony. Purdon is “one of the places I like best,” she affirms, a site she and husband Allan are always happy to visit. The couple are diehard orchid fans who published the monograph Orchids in the Ottawa District in a 1997 edition of The Canadian Field Naturalist.

At lunch later in the day, the gardeners from the Russell, Ont., area are impressed with what they’ve seen and heard. “It is very encouraging to think that one (man) could make such a difference,” says Margaret Helliker. “I’ve never seen wild orchids before…(and) I think that it’s critical to preserve areas like this.” It won’t happen without public support, she adds.

Area environmentalist Gord Harrison would certainly agree. The self-employed environmental education consultant and his wife, Claudia Smith, became proud orchid parents several years ago through the MVCA’s Adopt-an-Orchid program. A modest $25 each earned them certificates of adoption, charitable tax receipts and a place of honour on one of the five “orchid trees” in the fen that acknowledge supporters with wooden name plaques. Yee terms the program a small success that people “feel good about contributing to.” It brings in about $1,000 to $2,000 a year to help preserve the orchid habitat. For larger projects there is the Mississippi Valley Conservation Foundation, set up in 1996 to help raise funds for MVCA projects and to bring in volunteers for specific activities.

Harrison reflects on how he‘s been inspired by Joe’s example and has shared the story of his success with others. His contribution was made to honour the self-taught naturalist’s dedication and hard work, he says. He wouldn’t mind helping out again in the future. “If people go out to see and enjoy this kind of place, then they’re more likely to support that kind of (conservation) effort….It’s really important that we preserve wildlife habitats.”

And what of the man who launched this phenomenon? Well, his youngest daughter tells Legion Magazine in an interview that she thinks Joe would be “really pleased” to see what his former woodlot has become. Nothing pleased him more than the chance to show visitors around the wetland. Sadly, he never got to see the boardwalk. It was installed three years after his death.

Rhodena Bell remembers her dad as a quiet, good-natured and creative man who took great pleasure in making things from wood and machinery, and tending his beloved orchids. He was too soft-hearted to farm, she recalls, so he cobbled a living from making oars and rowboats–mainly from timber harvested from the land. Toys, ornaments and other curios he made and sold helped supplement his income, as well as the rental of five cottages he built on nearby Patterson Lake. She wonders what people today would make of the fact that in the late ’30s and early ’40s Joe would gather bunches of the unusual flowers to sell at the farmers’ market in Kingston. “It was a different time, and you’d do what you had to to survive.” He knew how to do it without killing the plants, she hastens to add. Other orchid bouquets occasionally made their way to the local church altar, to celebrate a wedding or other event.

Boyhood friend and lifelong neighbour Andrew Gemmill has similar memories and laughs as he recalls some of his old friend’s inventions. The man had a sense of humour, he relates; one gizmo that may have come from an American pattern was a hand-cranked, square wooden object with no apparent purpose. It soon became known as a “bullshit grinder.” Gemmill says yellow orchids grew by the schoolhouse the two of them attended, and these were studied in school–and often picked surreptitiously. “Joe was clever enough in school, enjoyed nature. He was always good with animals and plants.”

“I never met anyone like Dad. It was pretty special growing up there,” says Bell. She and her husband still rent the family cottages where Joe’s rowboats are still going strong, and are renovating the old farmhouse. They hope to occupy the place later this year. “We want to keep an eye on things,” she explains. She’s talking about the cottages, mainly, but is still a bit protective of the orchid colony where she feels closest to her dad. “When I see someone has been off the trail, I feel bad…but there’s so many people that do appreciate it that I guess that makes up for it.”

Mosquin says the visitors he meets when he conducts site tours seem genuinely interested, asking lots of questions and taking time to note other wonders of the place. Beyond the orchids, there’s the distinctive Pitcher Plant, for example, and the elegant Blue Flag. He’s heartened by the response, and is making labels to identify trees, grasses, ferns and notable native plants along the boardwalk for this spring. He articulates something he and Yee both touch on, reflecting the spirituality of the place.

“I think the meaning of it is linked to something pretty deep that people feel about the connection between nature and the human spirit….People go there to appreciate it, they get something out of it.”

Not a bad legacy, when you think about it.

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