The Lady of My Dreams / by Michael Zwack

Pollination.  1/400 @ F/2.8  ISO 250 

If Minnesota is known for one thing...besides winter, it's the continuing care and expansion of city parks, trails, and anything which  gets people outside.  Being cooped up for months out of the year, when Spring/Summer arrives Minnesotans head outdoors.  As a photographer this environment provides a plethora of natural shooting locations within the city limits.  

When realizing it was already early June and about the right time of year for the annual blooming of the Showy Lady's Slipper, I knew I had a responsibility to capture and share it's fragile beauty.   Having tried to photograph the elusively magnificent pink and white orchid many times, and coming up empty handed, I had more reason than ever to go in search of the Minnesota state flower.

With a busy schedule ahead and only a couple free days to get out and shoot, I started my research and found my best chance at a hidden sanctuary inside a city park in the heart of Minneapolis.  To be fair the landscape arboretum would also house this rare flower, but I wasn't looking for a carefully manicured garden.  No my friends, I wanted to give the flower the respect it deserves and search for it in it's natural habitat.  The only way to make that happen within the city limits was at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden within Theodore Wirth Park.  So there you have it...the secret is out. 

To be honest I didn't even know the garden existed up to this point.  I figured to get a photo I would have to head five hours north, wade through hot humid boggy swamps, only to fight off hoards of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.  As tempting a thought as that may be, I nonetheless opted for the path of least resistance.    

Swamp Buck Fawn.  1/60 @ F/2.8  ISO 640

One would think that a flower that can live up to 100 years, averages a life cycle of 50 years, and produces upwards of 50,000 seeds, that locating one would be easy.   Unfortunately however, with a peak bloom lasting only one to three weeks and taking up to 16 years to produce it's first flower, it would appear only the truly vigilant stand a chance at seeing one.  

Upon becoming the Minnesota state flower in 1902, it soon became clear that with continuing urban sprawl and wetland drainage the delicate flower would need protection.  Since 1925 the state has restricted collection and sales of the flower.

Pitcher Plant.  1/80 @ F/4ISO 1000

Add to that poor seed germination and a slow maturity rate, it quickly becomes an extremely fragile and difficult plant to cultivate...which also happens to make it all the more alluring to illegal farming.  Even being 1 of 43 orchid species in MN, it maintains an almost mythical stature.

So in continuing my journey, I had no idea if I would catch one in bloom.  Even if lucky enough to capture one at it's peak, I knew not what shooting conditions awaited.  Growing only in damp, boggy areas I knew that good lighting could seriously jeopardize my goal.  So as much as I preach bringing only the gear necessary for the shoot, I packed an arsenal of equipment and with my gear equipped I headed into the unknown.

Before heading to my final destination at the wildflower garden, I stopped at another location within the park aptly named Quaking Bog, where I was fortunate enough to photograph a rare carnivorous pitcher plant.  Not nearly as terrifying as originally described to me by a pair of eager orchid hunters I met along the way (Little Shop of Horrors Anyone?), it was nonetheless impressive in it's own right.  

With the sun starting it's descent it was time to finish my journey; and the timing couldn't have been better.  I found myself feeling incredibly fortunate to have the weather on my side, and with my trusty 70-200 f/2.8 lens I was confident I would have the focal length and aperture necessary to get the shot I waited years to photograph.  

The wildflower garden itself was an impressively preserved and peaceful natural environment.  With wooden boardwalks guiding visitors past seemingly endless vegetation, it would be easy to get wrapped up in the countless variety of plants and flowers.  I however was on a mission, and would have to wait until successful in my goal before reveling in the garden's secret charm.  

After stopping by the small wooden house turned interpretation center, I knew on which path to find my flower.  I was informed there was one group of flowers in early bloom just off the boardwalk. With growing excitement I rushed through the garden; passing innumerable shooting opportunities I noticed instantly when I arrived...a gentle pink color layering 7-8 delicately soft flowers and crisp white pedals on a small lone plant glistening in the early evening light.  I was caught off guard and it took a minute for the scene to truly register...I had found my flower!      

Showy Lady's Slipper.  1/640 @ F/2.8  ISO 100

I ended up only taking a small handful of pictures, and upon clicking the shutter, I knew I had captured something truly special. It was as if she knew I was coming and was ready for her close-up.  The reality being when photographing a subject that majestic, the picture almost takes itself and now I also have a timeless record of that moment, forever available to pull forth to memory of when I first laid eyes on the lady of my dreams. 

 

 

For more information on the Showy Lady's Slipper and Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, check out the following sites:
MinneapolisParks.org
USForestService