With the onset of warmer weather, pockets of vibrant colour sprout out of the land and rockscape. Spring arrives in the North with a rush and the vegetation has no time to spare. Our early-season guests on the Nahanni are currently enjoying the abundance of wildflowers.
Seeing lady’s slipper blooming along the Nahanni is a stunning treat. These perennial flowers are from the orchid family and have just three petals of lemon yellow: two at the top, streaked with a touch of rust and green, and one pushing out into a bright, hollow pouch shape with a deep cleft in the centre, giving it a unique slipper-like look.
Like other orchids, lady’s slippers grow through rhizomes—a horizontal root network under the soil—and require a specific soil fungus in order to germinate. While modest in size, the flowers we see today are no small thing, they have taken many years to blossom and we are lucky to see so many! Further south on the continent, you’ll find these flowers are becoming quite uncommon and, in some places, endangered. The orchids and fungus have a symbiotic relationship that is difficult to cultivate in transplanted settings; they thrive best in the wild.
Even so, these spectacular flowers are not easily pollinated—a cheeky trait of nature that lady’s slippers have adapted to. While they smell sweet, lady’s slippers have a deceptive personality: they offer no nectar reward. However, by attracting potential pollinators with their fragrance, insects who enter the slipper pouch (which has only one exit) are properly doused with pollen. As the hungry pollinator continues seeking nectar in other flowers, it carries the pollen along with it, unwittingly fertilizing as it goes.
As the summer season approaches, you’re most likely to see these lovely wildflowers along your journey at Rabbitkettle Lake and Virginia Falls on expeditions throughout June.