Some of the brightest colors of spring, rivaling the brilliant yellow of narcissi but native to our seepage swamps and wetlands, belong to two glorious wildflowers. Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) can so dazzle the eye on a drab April morning that cars slow down as they pass through the swamplands to soak up the color of these cheery wetland plants. There is nothing else in bloom in these places to rival them - not coltsfoot nor dandelion nor any other invasive plant - and for a few weeks in Spring they are the star of the swamp.
I have a wildflower garden in my little backyard. Actually, I have several of them, taking advantage of moist shady corners where Spring ephemerals and ferns give way to the spires of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)and White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) as the season progresses, or dry sunny places where Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and Sundial Lupine (Lupinus perennis) grow, but I don't have the right place for Marsh marigolds so they are a pleasure I take on their own terms. My parents, with an emergent wetland that takes over their driveway in a sheet of ice in winter and produces the plumpest high bush blueberries in summer, have an excellent site for Marsh marigolds, but I look out for them on the road to Litchfield or in the Schenob Brook wetlands of the Southern Berkshires.
In late May and early June, one of our rarest wildflowers emerges in the swamps, usually a solitary wonder amid the thick ferns and sedges but sometimes in small clusters of golden yellow orchids. These are the Yellow ladyslippers, both Large (Cypripedium pubescens) and Small (Cypripedium parviflorum). There may even be a hybrid of the two with characteristics of both species and medium-sized blooms. Ladyslipper orchids are extravagant and seductive, both for the eye and for bees which are lured into their enveloping flowers but frustrated by the paucity of nectar they contain. In order to propagate by seed, Ladyslippers have to fool the same bee twice, and even then there can be many years when the flowers, their lipped-pouches sometimes as large as a quail's egg, produce no fruit. Seed germination also requires a mycorrhizal association with certain soil fungi that determine where they can grow in the wild.
They also reproduce vegetatively, however, and places like The New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS) have successfully propagated thousands of Large Yellow Ladyslipper for sale and as plantings in that New England treasure, Garden in the Woods. I have two of their plants growing in my garden and this year there are five stunningly beautiful orchids offset by curling brown sepals bobbing at the end of their stalks. Because Ladyslipper orchids are highly vulnerable to collection, you should only consider buying them from extremely reputable nurseries like NEWFS and they can set you back between $45-90 dollars depending on your source. Cypripedium pubescens does well in my shade garden and likes our calcium-rich soils, but other wetland loving ladyslippers require more saturated habitat than I can provide. I am happy to leave them where they are, haunting beauties of fen and forested wetland.