The orchids of Purdon Conservation Area

From mid-June to mid-July each year, the Purdon Conservation Area in Lanark County is home to a rather special event: the blooming of thousands of wild orchids. Since I plan to visit all the conservation areas in Eastern Ontario, I thought that this week was the perfect time to go to visit Purdon Conservation Area!

In fact, I’ve been planning to visit this conservation area for a few years now. The place is well-known for its large colony of orchids, but since the blooming period lasts only about three weeks, and as I am often on the road for work at this time of year, it would finally have taken a global pandemic to slow down my pace of life a bit so that I had time to visit the place at the right time.

Purdon Conservation Area
Looking for orchids

As soon as I arrived at the conservation area, I started walking on the long boardwalk that passes over the fen in which the orchid colony is located. Although there are a few different species, the star of the site is the Showy Lady’s Slipper, or Cypripedium reginae, known to be the tallest orchid species in North America.

In the 1930s, this swamp belonged to a man named Joe Purdon and one day, while walking on his land, he discovered a dozen orchids. Purdon immediately started doing some research on these big white and pink flowers and what they needed to survive. For fifty years, Purdon has put into practice different wetland management techniques to allow his orchids to multiply. He cleared the fen, controlled the water levels, and pollinated the flowers by hand. When he died in 1984, the site was bequeathed to the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority. From the dozen orchids at the beginning, Purdon had successfully grown its colony to over 16,000 bulbs.

So I was particularly anxious to see these famous orchids, and I was a little disappointed at the beginning when I saw my first one, and then realized that they were not quite in bloom … Me who had waited all this time to come there at the perfect moment, had I come too early in the end?

Showy Lady's Slipper
Almost… but not really

Fortunately, a few meters further, I finally saw a fully bloomed orchid in all its beauty. After a while, I could easily spot the famous white and pink Showy Lady’s Slipper all over the fen. I definitely came a few days too early at the Purdon Conservation Area (in about a week, there will be hundreds orchids in bloom, rather than a few dozen), but I’m still happy I was able to admire the fragile beauty of this rare flower.

Showy Lady's Slipper Orchids
Wild orchids

But the conservation area is much more than just orchids. In fact, I really liked the multiple interpretative signs describing the various species of plants, trees and flowers found in this wetland. It almost felt like walking through a wild botanical garden.

Purdon Conservation Area
Exploring the fen

In addition to the wooden boardwalk, which is about 1 km long, the conservation area has another path, this one about 1.5 km long, which follows a rocky ridge. The trail (named the Ted Mosquin Highland Trail, in honor of a botanist and ecologist) first follows Lake Purdon before climbing a bit and following the rocky ridge. It is not very long, but since the trails I’ve explored in the past few weeks have been fairly flat, I admit it felt good to stretch my legs on a somewhat steeper terrain.

Purdon Conservation Area
The kind of trail I like

Interestingly, the wooden boardwalk is accessible to wheelchairs. There is also an observation platform that overlooks the lake, which is easy to access via a parking area (or you can get to it from the trail below, which is what I did).

Purdon Lake
Overlooking Purdon Lake

And if you’re looking for another hike west of Ottawa, the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority also managed the beautiful Morris Island Conservation Area in Ottawa, which I visited last year.

NOTE: At the time of writing this, the COVID-19 pandemic was still ongoing. The conservation authority recommends wearing the mask on the boardwalk, as it is not large enough to keep the recommended distance of 2 metres. For all the restrictions (and for updates on the blooming of orchids), visit the local website at: mvc.on.ca/places-to-see/purdon/

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