My Quest For The Rare White-Moccasin Flower

A rare Sandhill crane is an even rarer visitor to Long Island. Independent/Frank Quevedo

Although I don’t consider myself a botanist, I’m always fascinated to encounter rare plants that are native to Long Island. Each year, beginning in May and lasting through November, the South Fork of Long Island provides habitat to as many as 24 species of orchids, each one flowering at different times during this period. One of the most admired orchids here on the East End is the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), also known as the moccasin flower

The moccasin flower blooms from late May through June. They are specialized plants, which can take many years to develop. In order to survive after germination, the orchid seed must establish a relationship with a symbiotic fungus found in the soil. If found, the fungus will provide the nutrients necessary for seedling development. It’s a fascinating process as the orchid is totally dependent on the fungus for several years before its first leaves appear.

If the symbiotic relationship is disrupted, the plant will not survive. Several weeks ago, I was informed by Miles Todaro, SOFO environmental educator, that he and a group of hikers observed a rare, white-morphed pink lady’s slipper along a trail in Amagansett. This genetic morph is very rare, due to habitat loss, plant collecting, and changes in the environment. I had to see it.

I asked my friend and mentor Jim Ash to tag along. He is an experience botanist, exploring the East End’s natural treasures for nearly 60 years. He informed me that he has only seen the white moccasin flower three times in his life. This information was a motivating factor, and I became even more eager to find this magnificent plant.

As we headed toward where Miles indicated we would find the rare plant, we came upon a highly uncommon bird sighting of a lone Sandhill crane. Sandhill cranes don’t nest on Long Island, but once in a while, one or two overshoot their migratory pathway and accidentally land here. This bird was foraging in a field of bearberry, probably exhausted and looking to gain the energy to get back on track. They are large and long-legged and adults have a red crown on their head. This one seemed to be a juvenile, lacking the red crown. Hopefully, it will leave soon and join other cranes on their journey.

As we reached the location of the orchid, we parked and proceeded through the trail entrance. No more than 50 yards into the wooded trail, the beautiful plant made its appearance. It was an experience of a lifetime. The most significant aspect of my search for this wildflower is that it was promising to see the South Fork still has remaining habitat to support these fragile plants.

Frank Quevedo is the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum.


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