Saving our Showy Lady Slippers
Last spring Paul Rebori found a pair of rubber gloves on his property located just across the road from the Leelanau Conservancy’s Soper Preserve. The gloves were lying next to a clump of showy lady slippers that Paul and his wife, Phyllis, had been admiring. A retired conservation officer, Paul was furious when he saw that the flowers had been cut. He suspected someone had taken the blooms for a flower arrangement, or maybe in an attempt to collect seeds. Why the gloves? “The hairy leaves of these plants can cause a skin rash,” says Paul.
Across the road, at Soper Preserve, the showy lady slipper used to bloom by the hundreds. But they have largely disappeared in the last two decades. The reasons why are numerous. Hungry, plentiful deer find them tasty. Illegal digging is another—a real waste given that these orchids rarely survive transplant. Photographers in quest of the perfect shot have also damaged them. Fluctuating water levels may also be part of the showy’s steep decline at Soper Preserve.
Enter Chuck and Janet Dickerson, orchid enthusiasts who live in Omena. Over the last eight years the couple has made it their mission to resurrect the showy lady slipper population at Soper Preserve. Because of their passion and dedication, we chose them as Leelanau Conservancy’s 2017 Volunteers of the Year.
In 1999 the Dickersons met Conservancy staffer Yarrow Brown at an orchid conference in Wisconsin where she was a featured speaker. They also struck up an alliance with Scott Weber, a plant biologist there who was successfully propagating the orchids from seed.
The showy lady slipper relies on a chemical released from a fungus that is present at places like Soper Preserve. The chemical opens the seed casing which allows germination to begin. Weber had pioneered a chemical treatment that could mimic nature. “At this point he’s better than Mother Nature,” laughs Chuck.
The group hatched a plan for Chuck to hand-pollinate two stands of orchids near Omena—one from Soper Preserve and another from a friend’s property near North Lake Leelanau. Once the seed pods formed, Chuck harvested them and sent them off to Weber.
The process eventually yielded 700 seedlings. But eight years later, only 10% of the plants have survived, despite having been cared for year round by the Dickersons. “All you have to do is to forget to water them and they’re lost,” says Chuck.
One day this spring the retired couple—Chuck was a pharmacist and Janet a clinical pathologist—checked on the plants in their sunroom. “Janet said, ‘Come over and look at this. We’ve got an orchid,’” recalls Chuck. “I was so shocked. It was wonderful.”
He brought the blooming plant to our office to show it off, surrounded in chicken wire for safe keeping.Soon after, Chuck and our stewardship staff transplanted that blooming specimen along with most of the other 69 surviving seedlings at our Soper Preserve. So that the deer can’t get at them, a deer exclosure was also installed. Chuck and Paul Rebori helped Conservancy stewardship staff erect the fencing; the Dickersons paid for the materials while Paul built an ingenious tool to roll out the fencing (pictured.)
Our showy lady slippers are very special, and so are the Dickersons. “I think what the Dickersons have done is incredible,” says Yarrow. “Chuck’s dedication to the native genotype and the way that the Dickersons have babied these plants for eight years is really something.” Published in our Fall 2017 newsletter.