I spent a few days in the Gasterntal in Switzerland at the end of June, (in 2012). There in the woods grows the only north European orchid with the extravagant beauty of many tropical orchids.
That it is to be found in several places in the valley is an open secret. Seeing me looking at flowers a couple told me where I could find some of the orchids, Frauenschuh in German, women’s shoe. Soon after, someone who saw me taking photos of other flowers asked me if I knew where they were to be found. I ended up having four or five little conversations about them. Not advertised or sign posted, they encourage human contact, and trust. The best known site is obvious once you’re on the right track, a well worn circuit of narrow paths leads you round seven or eight gorgeous little colonies, all intact, all sacred.
Sheila and I had seen one or two once before, in the Vercors, near Grenoble, when again someone led us through the trees to find them. But it was growing dark -we had got lost – and we could hardly see them. In France they call them ‘sabot de Venus’. There’s one in Yorkshire, they say, where no one gives away the secret location and they are reputed to be guarded round the clock. We call them lady’s slipper.
Take your pick. Frauenschuh, down to earth; lady’s slipper, more refined; but I prefer sabot de Venus. The French win with that nice conjunction of clogs and Venus. (Like the pop song? Venus in blue jeans?)
And cypripedium… why do some names stick? I spent half the weekend trying to remember the word ‘decathlon’, even looking at labels on my cagoule etc, but they just said ‘Quechua’ of course. Why Quechua – another forgotten language? and what a disappointment when I did remember, or rather finally found the word on a little label inside my rucksack; at first I could only find ‘Forclaz’. (What’s that?) Anyway, cypripedium also means Venus’s slipper. (As in Cyprus, the island of Venus.) But calceolus means ‘little shoe’, so the whole name is clumsy, if unforgettable.
Several years ago only a single plant remained of Britain’s only colony of ladies’ slippers, in a secret place in north Yorkshire. (secret, solitary, sacred….) Since then they have cleverly cloned it and established some young plants which are carefully protected by dedicated workers who combine the roles of scientist, security guard and priest.