Reciprocity: Orchids of Quebec

“Every time I am asked who my inspirations have been… I always tell them about my summer at the herbarium [and] I tell them about you, your life’s work, about how you accomplished what most women (then and even now) could only dream of. And I tell them how fortunate I am to have worked with you, to have your friendship… your influence and inspiration continues even though you are miles away." -Correspondence from Swales' former student, Joanne Marchand, quoted in Swales' memoir. 

Of all the flowers Swales encountered in her life, her favourite was by far the yellow lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum). 

Although Swales spent summers travelling to northern regions to collect and identify plants, the beauty of the flora of southern Quebec enthralled her. In particular, Swales loved the orchids that she encountered in Quebec, some of which were considered rare. Orchids, known for their reciprocal relationship with fungi, would have especially appealed to Swales as someone who specialized in fungal sexuality during her PhD at the University of Manitoba.

Like the connections that shaped Swales’ life, the orchid is synonymous with reciprocity. Unseen below ground, orchids and fungi engage in a mutually beneficial relationship. The seeds of Cypripedium orchids rely on fungi to germinate. As ecologist Matt Canadeias explains, "For much of their early life, orchids rely on fungi to provide them with both their mineral and carbohydrate needs. Only after the orchids are large enough to grow leaves will most of them start to give back to their fungal partners in the form of carbohydrates generated from photosynthesis."

The kind of interconnectedness that enables orchids to thrive defined Swales’ life as a botanist and mentor. According to her son, Dr. David Swales, Dorothy Swales was considered a mother away from home for many international students who came to McGill to study plant science and this mentorship led to lasting friendships with students around the world. Even in retirement, Swales was seen as a role model for many young women in the sciences, encouraging students much the same way Faith Fyles inspired her as a child. 

This exhibit features a selection of the orchids that Swales collected over the course of her life throughout Quebec.