Thursday, May 7, 2009


by Carman, Bliss (1861-1929)

Who passed this way and left this trace
Of beauty in so wild a place,

To stir our souls with marvelling
At so incredible a thing?

Who sent this living miracle
In the deep Northern woods to dwell,

Where only hermit thrushes come
And the shy brown bear makes his home?

Whence was the inspiration caught?
Whose was the sudden happy thought?

Or whose the impulse thus to bless
The rough untrodden wilderness?

Deep in our hearts glad tidings say,
Beauty herself came by this way,

And with a wisdom older far
Than alphabet or calendar,

Cast off her sandal as she sped
Lest we should miss the way she fled.

And so forever we pursue
The shadowy trail of Beauty's shoe,

And for her sake must leave behind
Riches and rest and peace of mind,

To follow on that shining trace,
With beating heart and breathless pace.

By darkling wood and haunted stream,
Still lured by the enchanting gleam,

Wherever the long way may lead,
To keep the trail is all our need.

On simple fare, in poor attire,
Torn and waylaid by flint and briar,

With the lone dawn upon the height
Or the great desert stars by night,

Through burning sun and blinding snow
Untiring and content we go,

If only so we may behold
Dear Beauty's self ere we are old.

And then there’s the restatement of the obvious, as told by Barbara Kingsolver in her novel, Prodigal Summer:

"Who named it that?" he asked, and laughed – they both did – at whoever had been first to pretend this flower looked liked a lady’s slipper and not a man’s testicles. But they both touched the orchid’s veined flesh, gingerly, surprised by its cool vegetable texture.

Pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is a member of the orchid family (Orchidaceae), and while the family name is derived from the Greek orchis, "a testicle," that allusion is to the round tubers found on some species.

Surprisingly, the orchid family is the largest in the world, with about 200,000 known species. Most orchids depend on soil fungi for part of their food. Hence, the flower is difficult to transplant or cultivate in captivity. The generic name for lady slippers, Cypripedium, is compounded from the Latin Cypris, "Venus," and pedilon, "shoe."

Finally, the great James A. Duke shares this:

America's long courtship with sedatives and tranquilizers may have decimated ladyslipper populations here and there. Once known in Europe as American valerian, the ladyslipper has a long history as an antispasmodic, sedative and tranquilizer. The herb industry is attempting to help preserve ladyslippers. Many of the bigger dealers have publicly announced that they no longer deal in ladyslippers. North Carolina herbalists are attempting to propagate ladyslippers in tissue culture in hopes of mastering their cultivation, much as they have mastered ginseng cultivation.

Ladyslipper is not the only orchid endangered by medicinal collectors. One Baltimore herbalist told me he could get $18 for the paired tubers of Aplectrum or Tipularia. Like the middle eastern "salep", paired tubers of these species suggest the testicles and hence, following the "Doctrine of Signatures", they are promoted as "aphrodisiac".

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