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In Hartland, Nature Puts on Perennial Show

Saturday, June 22, 2013
For the next week to 10 days, Eshqua Bog in Hartland is putting on one of the most magnificent displays found in nature: the annual flowering of the Showy Lady’s Slipper.

With a lower pouch-like petal that resembles a dainty pink shoe, and waxen, white upper petals, the orchid, also called the Queen’s Slipper, looks like the stuff of fairy tales: Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty springing up from a tangle of trees, shrubs, cat tails, long grasses and scrubby plants. A boardwalk runs through and around the two-acre bog, making it possible for visitors to see the Lady’s Slippers close-up.

On a damp, cool day this week, dozens of the orchids crowded either side of the boardwalk, popping up behind grasses and willows and peeping out from behind cat tails. While most Showy Lady’s Slippers consist of one flower per stalk, some stalks hold double and even triple flowers.

Members of a tour group from the New England Wildflower Society in Massachusetts took photographs, gently spraying the orchids with water so that droplets clung, photogenically, to the petals. The Nature Conservancy co-owns and co-manages Eshqua Bog with the New England Wildflower Society; the bog is one of 55 areas in the state owned by the Vermont Nature Conservancy.

Although the Hartland preserve is called a bog, it is really a fen, said Dean Greenberg, who lives in town and is a volunteer caretaker for the preserve with his wife Susan Greenberg. Bogs are acidic, while fens are alkaline, and it’s the alkaline, calcium-laden water of a fen that is the ideal environment for growing Showy Lady’s Slippers.

“It’s a combination of very wet soils and the right temperatures, and whether the pH is correct. With the confluence of all these things, (lady’s slippers) thrive. ....They really like to have their feet wet,” Greenberg said.

Despite its relative rarity, the orchid has a wide geographic range, from Saskatchewan in Western Canada all the way east to the Maritimes, and from southern Canada down to North Carolina and as far west as Arkansas and North Dakota.

Its official designation in Vermont is “uncommon,” which puts it a notch below endangered and threatened, said Rose Paul, director of critical lands and conservation science at the Vermont Nature Conservancy in Montpelier.

It’s listed as endangered in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut; threatened in Maine; and not present in Rhode Island, according to the New England Wildflower Society. It is illegal to pick wild flowers such as Lady’s Slippers on private property without the owner’s permission, according to Vermont state botanist Bob Popp. The fact that Showy Lady’s Slippers can cause contact dermatitis is another disincentive to disturbing it in situ, as is the impossibility of transplanting and propagating it from the roots. “They spread through seeds, (which) are very hard to germinate,” Greenberg said.

The 40-acre site owes its preservation to Graceann Ridlon, who became concerned when the land where the fen is located went up for sale in 1986. Ridlon rallied support for preserving the site, and funds were raised by the Nature Conservancy and the New England Wildflower Society to set the parcel aside.

The presence of the Lady’s Slippers was enough to warrant preserving the site, Greenberg said. In general, when the Nature Conservancy proposes a fen or bog for preservation, it is looking for the cream of the crop, Paul said. “We want to ensure that the best fens are conserved. We’re looking for places in the best condition with a full complement of species, including rare species.”

Sites in spotty condition that are on the edge of urban or suburban areas don’t usually make the cut, she added. Most of the money for land conservation comes from state funding and private donations, Paul said. “Both sources are really important to us.”

Eshqua is one of seven bogs and fens protected by the Nature Conservancy, and although other fens in the state have the Showy Lady’s Slipper, Eshqua Bog has more of them than any other, Paul said.

Some bogs, such as Eshqua, are open and accessible to the public, but the locations of some are kept quiet, to prevent disturbance, Paul said. At Eshqua Bog, the Greenbergs pointed out areas off the boardwalk where people had stepped, to get a better view of other plants, or perhaps to take photos. The indentations from the footprints were clearly visible in the marshy terrain.

As the orchids begin to open and then reach their peak, Greenberg said, the color goes from white to pink, deepens to rose, and then fades to a pale pink.

In the past 8 to 10 years, perhaps because of climate change, Greenberg has noticed that the bloom time has come earlier and earlier. But this year’s wet, cool weather delayed the bloom time until now, which has been the normal time at which the Showy Lady’s Slippers would flower.

When the Greenbergs checked last week, Susan Greenberg said, there were only six or seven orchids in bloom; just five days later, clumps of them were in full flower. The bog boasts other species of plant life uncommon in the Upper Valley: Labrador tea, a plant which is at the southern end of its range, the green bog orchid, the minuscule, insectivorous Sundew, pitcher plants, bunchberry, saxifrage, small yellow lady’s slippers, false hellebore, and low bush blueberry.

The Nature Conservancy is beginning to raise money to replace the boardwalk, which is beginning to buckle in places, Paul said. The boardwalk will be redesigned to make it accessible for people using walkers or wheelchairs.

As for the name “Eshqua,” the meaning is uncertain. It might mean “woman,” Susan Greenberg said. Or it might mean “pathway” in Abenaki, Paul said. “It’s a mystery we’d still like to solve.”

For information, go to the Vermont Nature Conservancy website:

Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

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