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Where The Wild Orchids Grow

Betty Smith
Showy Lady Slippers take center stage in Eshqua Bog in June.

As I walked out onto the boardwalk that crosses Eshqua Bog in Hartland, the trees opened out above me, a broad sky appeared, and the idea of trolls peeping up from under the resounding boards began to seem distinctly possible.

The bog is rich, green and fecund, jammed with plant life, and actually quite small — only about eight acres in size. But in the botanical world, size isn’t everything. Eshqua Bog is protected by the New England Wildflower Society and the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy because it’s a botanical treasure house — it’s packed with rare plants.

And the most spectacular of those plants are the Showy Lady's-slippers — vivid pink-and-white wild orchids that bloom here in profusion toward the end of June. They’re tall, brightly colored — and somehow intensely delicate. Because they’re both rare and strikingly beautiful, they attract visitors here from all over.

There are several varieties of wild orchids in northern New England, and they range from subtle spikes of tiny white blossoms (the white bog orchis) to the bright and colorful Lady's-slipper tribe — yellow, pink, ram’s head and showy.

Like many of the other rare plants in Eshqua Bog, the wild orchids are survivors from the post-glacial climate of 10,000 years ago. They’ve somehow kept blooming and reproducing, even as the climate around them has warmed.

And sure enough, on the morning some friends and I got to the bog, it was overcast and chilly. We could feel the cold air flowing down from the damp, forested hills that surround the bog.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the greatest enemy to the survival of Showy Lady's-slippers is us — human beings. For many years, people — land owners, farmers, and developers — not knowing their immense value, filled in wetlands, bogs and swamps in favor of house sites or farmland. But we’ve finally learned better, and it was a local woman, Graceann Ridlon, who, when Eshqua Bog was threatened some years ago, notified the Nature Conservancy which, with the Wildflower Society, managed to buy and protect it.

I find it’s somehow quietly reassuring that the Showys continue to bloom, dependably, each spring in this cold little bog. I guess I’m just happy that something in this messed-up world of ours still works.

Showy Lady's-slippers aren’t just beautiful. They’re beacons of a kind of hope.