1995, Ruth Davis, Study Of Orchids, Canada

Orchid Hunting In Canada

By Ruth Davis

I organised a study trip for the summer of 1995 to Canada with the following aims:

  • collect material of leaves of orchid species for Dr. Alec Pridgeon, of the Jodrell Laboratories at Kew (now the Sainsbury Orchid Fellow) to continue his biosystematic studies.
  • arrange legitimate seed exchange programmes between the Living Collections Department at Kew and orchid researches in Canada. This would serve two purposes. Firstly, it would enable workers in the Sainsbury Project to test the efficacy of their techniques developed on European species on similar North American material. Secondly, Kew could build up a population of plants which would be available for research and display and, perhaps eventually yield seedlings for a non-commercial distribution programme, which would reduce the demand for wild collected specimens.
  • visit and learn from Canadian orchid enthusiasts and help to continue the friendly relationship between our two countries.
  • study Canadian orchids in their natural habitats.

I arrived in Ottawa on 18th May and was met by Dr. Marilyn Light and her husband.

Spring in the woods of eastern Canada is an exotic parallel of our own. Fagus grandifolia, the dominant tree in the woods of Gatineau Park, north of Ottawa, sheds a light which is subtly softer than that of our beech or oak. Seen against armies of its die-straight, grey trunks, the thousands of Trilliums made me feel giddy. In the midst of this already extraordinary sight, Marilyn showed me a colony of yellow lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium calceolus), perhaps 50 yards across, with robust clones each carrying up to 30 flowers on stems two feet high.

As well as arranging trips into the field, Marilyn showed me how she was able to germinate and grow so many orchid species in her kitchen and basement. She sows seed quite successfully without a laboratory or a flow bench: her sterilant is household bleach.

I left Ottawa and set out for Guelph, seven hours southwest by train. I wasn’t to know that my host there had more in mind for us than strolls in the woods. Once I had arrived it didn’t take me long to realise that Alan Anderson was a man with a mission — to spend as much time as possible up to his waist in sphagnum bog. There is no getting away from the fact that, in North America, Orchids Grow in Bogs. Not all of them, but a fair proportion of the species you might think of as typical — Calopogon pulchellus, Arethusa bulbosa as well as many Platanthera species and Pogonia ophioglossiodes. To see a sphagnum bog covered in flowers of these plants must be quite a sight, but I was two months too early for this, having timed my visit to coincide with the flowering of the lady’s slippers. Nonetheless, it was part of my practical aim to collect leaf samples of a number of these species, and so `bog-trotting’ was inevitable.

Not all our time in southern Ontario was spent in bogs, however. Cypripedium candidum, the white lady’s slipper, is a species with very few stations left in Canada. It is thought that it was dependent on patterns of burning and renewal on old prairie which have long since been `controlled’ by the fire-conscious modern Canadians. The plant has retreated to tiny residual areas of prairie. One of them is on an island in the Detroit River, which it would be charitable to describe as God forsaken.

The plant itself is a pretty one, not the most spectacular of lady’s slippers, but graceful and fine. One of the curious aspects of its conservation programme is the problem posed by its inclination to hybridize with local forms of small yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), a species growing in the nearby woodland fringes. There were many obvious hybrids amongst the plants we saw, raising questions about what conservation status these should have and how much of a threat they posed to the continued existence of Cypripedium candidum as an independent entity.

Our last botanical expedition during my stay in Guelph was to the Bruce Peninsula, a finger of land which projects out into Lake Huron, and which is famous for its orchids. We were able to collect samples from a number of the orchids on my list: Coralorrhiza striata growing in dense coniferous forest, Spiranthes lucida, found just above the line of the spring melt-water of the Sauble River and, best of all, Platanthera orbiculata, which has two basal leaves, silver green and large as dinner plates. This was my final day in Ontario and a most rewarding one. I was reluctant to leave, but at the same time looked forward to travelling west to my next stop, Edmonton.

My visit to Edmonton coincided with the Canadian Orchid Congress and I was able to attend their show and a number of lectures and seminars on terrestrial orchid conservation and propagation. At the end of the Congress meeting a visit had been arranged, for delegates with a particular interest in Canadian orchids, to an area of forest west of Edmonton. I was very pleased to be asked to join this party by Gordon Heaps, the Curator of the Mutart Conservatory, which has a large orchid collection.

My final destination was Vancouver. During my stay with Mary Miles in Lion Bay I was again lucky enough to be able to join a botanising visit organised by some local people, this time some of the staff at Van Deusen Botanic Garden, where Mary works as an artist. This visit to Botanie Valley, 3,000 feet up in the Cascade Mountains, was perhaps the most spectacular of my whole trip. It began when, on the road up to Botanie, we found a group of mountain lady’s slipper, Cypripedium montanum, growing on the steep bank above the unmade road. This is a grand orchid: everything about it is on a large scale and, unusually for a Cypripedium, it carries many flowers on a single stem.

I had one last orchid mission to attempt: I had been told of a colony of Listera cordata on a trail near the Joffre Lakes, which was on our way home. I didn’t expect to find such a tiny plant with no reference in such a vast area of forest, but it was a lovely walk, so we clambered out of the car and set off. I had the most ridiculous piece of luck and stumbled over the orchid, only an inch tall, on my way back down the trail: it was a nice way to finish off an enormously enjoyable trip.

(These notes have been extracted from the full report.)

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