Recently, I felt an exhilaration that bordered on ecstasy when I encountered what, for me, is one of the loveliest plants in existence. The distinctive blooms of the lady’s slipper, for that is the plant in question, were growing on the banks of a clear, fast-flowing mountain stream (what Italians call, onomatopeically, a ruscello – pronounced ‘rooshello’). No plant photographer could ask for more and this one certainly did not. Which is how I came to spend the best part of three hours photographing the orchid Cypripedium calceolus in the Abruzzo, trying to do justice to this gem in fluctuating light levels on a grey day by using just about every lens I had in the bag…and then again some, just in case.
I first encountered the lady’s slipper in 1979 in Switzerland, in the Lauterbrunnen valley in the lee of the Eiger set against a snow-covered mountain back drop when, that is, after seven hours sitting, the clouds lifted. On other occasions, I have encountered it in pine woodlands and under bushes in scrubby mountain pastures in France, Germany and in the Italian Dolomites…it is not one of the sights of which it is easy to tire.
Beauty has been the instrument of this plant’s demise in many of its former haunts: I once found references to the blooms being sold at ‘ten for a guinea’ to people in horse-drawn coaches travelling north through Yorkshire. It was also sold in market places and dug up by gardeners until it was almost wiped out: it has been extremely rare in Britain for well over a century but plants grown at Kew have been re-introduced and are carefully monitored. Fortunately, there are still good populations scattered throughout the limestone mountains of Europe, in spite of its blooms having graced many a dining table in mountain hotels.