Lady’s slipper orchid

Lady’s Slipper – Pink

Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Ease to Grow: Moderate.
Dormancy: Yes
Native Range: Woodlands of Eastern North America.
Zones: 3-8 (2-9).

Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium acaule, is one of the best known of all the hardy orchids. Its large (2-3″) pink, mocassin shaped flowers resembling a swollen egg. The pouches are pink with raspberry colored veins, and an opening through which pollinating insects travel. There is no nectar, and insects have to find their way through the pouch and out the back. They probably soon learn there is little nectar available in Lady’s Slippers and avoid the flowers, which may be why so few are pollinated in the wild. Flowers are singluar on medium height spikes, and topped by green and brownish maroon sepals. It is a late Spring, early Summer bloomer, and flowers can last up to a month or more. Flower spikes benefit from staking, and protection from the wind. Two wide, long elliptical leaves rise from the base of the plant. They are rich green above and silvery green below. They are corrugated by thick, parallel veins. In their natural habit, Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchids grow in open, upland woods, above bogs and fens, usually under pines. The soil is typical low nutrient, loose, well drained and humusy. It is consistently moist, but not saturated. There is frequently a layer of decomposing leaves on the soil surface. Light is shade or dappled sunlight. Plants tolerate full sun, but do not look their best. Seeds are very fine and can be a challenge to germinate. It is winter hardy, and should be protected from rodents during dormancy. Mulch with 4+” of pine needles in the Fall. Leave at least a 1″ of needles after spring cleanup. The rhizomes can be stored in damp sphagnum at 35°F (2°C) in a refrigerator for 3 or 4 months. Water with rain/distilled water, they are sensitive to mineral buildup. Do not over water, and be sure to keep the soil slightly moist during the peak of summer. Keep soil acidic, provide good drainage, and do not fertilize. It does well in beds and pots, and makes a charming addition to the bog garden.

Our plants are not collected from the wild, and are propagated from root divisions of plants in our collection.
For Lady’s Slipper Orchids size refers to age of plants. Small (1 year), medium (2-3 years), large (4+ years). A multi-crown plant may have 2 to 4 crowns.

Plants are shipped bare-root, wrapped in damp sphagnum moss. In it’s dormant season, it will be shipped as a dormant root/rhizome. Photographs are representative of species, and not the specific plant shipped.

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Lady Slipper Orchids

Stumble upon a patch of wild lady slipper orchids, and the feeling is pure delight. The delicate, yet intricate beauty of the native wildflower slipper orchids is awe-inspiring. Of all the perennial types of orchids, the lady slipper orchid is probably the most well-known and popular—and it also likely unfurls the showiest blossom.
Many countries with strong seasons have native lady slipper orchids. There are forty-eight species total worldwide. The greatest number occurs in the temperate regions of East Asia. In the United States, eleven lady slipper orchid species are native, and they occur in every state but Nevada, Hawaii and Florida. In Minnesota, the native showy lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium reginae) is the state flower.
Lady slipper orchids grow in one of two ways. They may have just a pair of basal leaves, or the native plant may produce a leafy stalk that grows up to 24 inches tall. The lady slipper blossom appears on a stem just above the leaves. The flower has a distinct form. Three long, twisted petals in dark hues stand above and behind an enlarged pouch—the slipper. The pouch portion of the bloom can be tiny, roughly one inch long, or as large as a standard chicken egg.
In the garden, lady slipper orchids need a spot in a shaded woodland. Sunlight should be filtered and dappled, and soil should contain much humus and organic matter. Some lady slipper orchids need moist alkaline soil to grow; others crave dry, acidic, sandy soils. Do your homework to ensure you provide the right growing conditions for your orchid.
Lady slipper orchid roots grow atop soil, and the natural decomposition processes of the forest cover those roots with compost. In your own garden, try planting lady slipper orchids bareroot. Lay the roots across the soil surface, followed by a light layer of compost and mulch. Keep this mixture moist until plants are clearly established and growing.
As a rule, lady slipper orchids aren’t easy to grow. Among the North American slipper orchids, the easiest ones to grow are the Kentucky lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium kentuckiense) and a Minnesota native, the greater yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens).
When purchasing lady slipper orchids, make sure you’re not buying plants that have been harvested from the wild. You should be able to tell by the price. Lady slipper orchids raised from seed can take from six to eight years to flower and usually cost at least $35. Plants sold for less—that are being marketed as having achieved flowering size—are probably wild harvested.
The botanical name of the lady slipper orchid—cypripedium—refers to the island of Cyprus (“cypri”), which was the mythological birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite. “Pedium” refers to shoe or slipper. In some circles, lady slipper orchids are referred to as Aphrodite’s slipper.

Minnesota’s coveted native orchids

Soon, deep snow will give way to the shoots of spring.

The earliest harbingers — wildflowers like snow trillium, hepatica, bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches — are a delight every year and awaken us from our winter torpor.

A bit later, perhaps mid-May to mid-June, the careful observer in the right location may be rewarded with sightings of some of the most lovely flowers in the state: the orchids.

We decided to give our color-starved eyes a taste of late spring with some of the orchid beauties they may behold later on.

What makes an orchid an orchid?

Orchids have long been prized by many humans for their unusual shape and often spectacular colors. All orchids have three sepals (which may resemble petals) and three petals, one of which is modified into a lip, the most distinctive feature of the orchid. In lady’s slippers, the lip is the part that forms the slipper.

With roughly 25,000 species, the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is the largest in the world. The vast majority of orchids are tropical creatures; alas, here in chilly Minnesota we have just 46 species.

Why orchids grow more often in the wild than in gardens

Orchids are as unusual underground as they are aboveground.

Most plants’ roots are associated with mycorrhizal fungi, which provides minerals and water to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates that the plant makes in photosynthesis.

In orchids, however, the fungus also provides carbohydrates to the orchid, getting virtually nothing in return. The carbohydrates come from trees and other plants that the fungus is also associated with. Fungi also provide energy to orchid seeds, which are tiny and have no stored energy to germinate and grow.

It is this unique symbiosis with fungi that makes growing native orchids very difficult in a garden setting. A few, however, are commercially available.

Orchids in Minnesota

Twenty-five of the orchids in Minnesota are found in wetlands, including the most spectacular of all, the showy lady’s slipper. We’ve highlighted a few native orchids that you can encounter in the uplands of our metro area.

Curious to know more? Check out the definitive guide Native Orchids of Minnesota published by University of Minnesota Press.

Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens)

Standing up to 30 inches tall, this is the tallest orchid in Minnesota, with a flower size similar to the showy lady’s slipper. Although this is the most common wild orchid in the U.S., found in almost every state, it is still a rare encounter. Look for it in mesic hardwood forests.

Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

The bicolored purple and white flowers make this fairly unusual among Minnesota orchids. It’s the first to bloom, about mid-May, and is pollinated by bees.

Putty-root (Aplectrum hyemale)

The striped and accordion-folded leaves of this orchid are more notable than the spike of small greenish-reddish flowers. Each plant has one large leaf (left), which is present from fall to early spring, then disappears as the flower stalk (right) emerges.

Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens)

Like putty-root, this orchid is better known for its basal leaves, which are highly variegated (left). You might find large patches of leaves, but flowering stalks are harder to come by (right). Finding the plant in bloom with its tiny, white, roundish flowers feels like an accomplishment.

Lily-leaved twayblade (Liparis liliifolia)

Found in sandy soils in association with oak trees, these unusual purplish flowers look like no other. A seed capsule from one flower was found to have over 54,000 seeds!

Lesser purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes)

This joyful beauty can be found in the northern part of the metro but is more common farther north. It likes temporarily wet soils (such as streambanks) in full sun or partial shade.

Stemless lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

This striking orchid is more commonly found in the bogs of northern Minnesota, but it can also grow in low-nutrient, acidic bedrock conditions. There are a few records of sightings in the metro.

Learn more

With many native orchids at risk, it’s crucial that we conserve and restore the places orchids grow. Learn more about our land conservation program.

Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule Aiton)

Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Pink Lady’s Slippers bloom from late May to late June, often appearing about the same time as Bunchberry. Pink Lady’s Slipper on the Heron Marsh Trail (30 May 2014).

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule Aiton) is a large, showy wildflower belonging to the orchid family. It blooms in the Adirondacks from late May to late June. The genus name (Cypripedium) is from the Greek “Kypris” (Venus) and “pedilon,” meaning slipper. The species name (acaule) is Latin, meaning, “stem less,” referring to the fact that the leaves of the plant appear to arise from the root and not from the plant stem.

Other common names include Moccasin Flower, Pink Moccasin Flower, Stemless Lady’s Slipper, Squirrel Shoes, Small Pink Lady’s-slipper, Stemless Lady’s-slipper, Lady’s-slipper Orchid, Pink Lady’s-slipper Orchid and American Valerian. The latter name is a reference to the fact that this plant was once widely used as a substitute for the European plant valerian for its sedative properties.

Identification of Pink Lady’s Slipper

Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: The flowers of the Pink Lady’s Slipper vary from very light pink to deep rose, with darker veins. Pink Lady’s Slipper on the Heaven Hill Trails (14 June 2017).

Pink Lady’s Slipper is an upright plant ranging from six to twelve or fifteen inches tall. This plant is often seen growing in groups. The stems are covered with fine hairs.

Each plant has a pair of basal leaves, meaning that the leaves grow from the lowest part of the stem. The leaves are one to three inches wide and up to eight inches long, oblong, with a pointed tip. The leaves are smooth (not toothed), usually a rich green above and silvery and hairy below. They have a prominent central vein, similar to those of Clintonia (Blue Bead Lily). However, in contrast to Clintonia leaves, the leaves of the Pink Lady’s Slipper are deeply pleated, with prominent parallel veins in addition to the central vein.

Pink Lady’s Slipper flowers bloom at the top of a leafless stalk. The flowers have a distinctive, slipper-like lip about two inches long. The lip is pink, ranging in color from very light pink to deep rose, with darker red or violet veins. The lip is cleft along the middle and flanked by a pair of tapering, narrow twisted petals that are yellowish green to purple with fine hairs.

Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: The leaves of Pink Lady’s Slipper have prominent parallel veins. Pink Lady’s Slipper in bud on the Heaven Hill Trails (29 May 2017).

In the Adirondack Park, Pink Lady’s Slippers usually bloom from the fourth week in May to about the third week in June. A tally of flowering dates for the upland Adirondack areas compiled by Michael Kudish, based on data collected from the early seventies to the early nineties, lists the earliest flower date as 30 May and the median date as 13 June.

Pink Lady’s Slippers are pollinated by bees that enter the flower through the slit in the front of the pouch. The insects can escape only through exits beneath each pollen mass. When the bee passes under the stigma, it deposits pollen from previous visits to other flowers and picks up a fresh load of pollen.

The fruit of the Pink Lady’s Slipper is a capsule that ripens from green to tan or brown and contains thousands of tiny seeds. When the capsule splits, the powdery seeds are dispersed by the wind. The seed must find be joined by a mycorrhizal fungus before it can absorb soil nutrition.

Uses of Pink Lady’s Slipper

No edible uses of this species were found. Pink Lady’s Slippers were once used as a remedy for a variety of ailments, including nervousness, sleeplessness, kidney disorders, and muscle spasms. Native American peoples used an infusion of the roots for colds, clue, and urinary tract disorders.

This plant propagates very poorly and should not be picked. Like all orchid species in New York State, Pink Lady’s Slippers are on the state protected list. It is a violation for anyone to remove or damage an orchid that is on state land. Removal of an orchid from private land is prohibited without the landowner’s consent.

In any event, it’s best to avoid contact with Pink Lady’s Slippers, since plants of the genus Cypripedium have glandular hairs on the leaves and stems that can cause a rash, similar to poison ivy rash, upon contact.

Wildlife Value of Pink Lady’s Slipper

Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Pink Lady’s Slipper is listed as exploitably vulnerable in New York State and should not be picked. Pink Lady’s Slipper on the Black Pond Trail (10 June 2015).

No wildlife uses of this species were found.

Distribution of Pink Lady’s Slipper

Pink Lady’s Slippers are found from Saskatchewan to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; south to South Carolina and Georgia; west to Alabama and Tennessee; and north to Minnesota. This plant is listed as endangered in Illinois and Tennessee and unusual in Georgia

This plant is found in almost all counties in New York State, where it is listed as exploitably vulnerable. Pink Lady’s Slipper is found in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.

Habitat of Pink Lady’s Slipper

Pink Lady’s Slipper grows in a variety of habitats. In the Adirondack Mountains, this plant can be found growing on well-drained sites, often under partial shade in coniferous forests. Pink Lady’s Slipper also grows under hardwoods and in Mixed Wood Forests. It is typically found in acidic soils. It can also be seen on the edges of swamps and bogs.

Michael Kudish. Adirondack Upland Flora: An Ecological Perspective (The Chauncy Press, 1992), pp. 26, 234.

New York Flora Association. New York Flora Atlas. Pink Lady’s-slipper. Cypripedium acaule Aiton. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

United States Department of Agriculture. The Plants Database. Moccasin Flower. Cypripedium acaule Aiton. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

United States Department of Agriculture. Forest Service. Plant of the Week. Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule Ait.). Retrieved 27 May 2017.

Flora of North America. Cypripedium acaule Aiton. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

NatureServe Explorer. Online Encyclopedia of Life. Pink Lady’s-slipper. Cypripedium acaule – Ait. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

New England Wildflower Society. Go Botany. Pink Lady’s-slipper. Cypripedium acaule Ait. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

New York State. Department of Environmental Conservation. New York Natural Heritage Program. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition (March 2014), pp. 101-102. Retrieved 17 October 2015.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2015. Online Conservation Guide for Pitch Pine-Heath Barrens. Retrieved 6 March 2017.

New York State. Adirondack Park Agency. Preliminary List of Species Native Within the Adirondack Park Listed Alphabetically by Scientific Name and Sorted by Habit. Volume 1. Updated 10.23.2006, p. 19. Retrieved 26 January 2017.

USA National Phenology Network. Nature’s Notebook. Cypripedium acaule. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

Connecticut Botanical Society. Pink Lady’s-slipper (Pink Moccasin-flower). Retrieved 27 May 2017.

University of Wisconsin. Flora of Wisconsin. Cypripedium acaule Aiton. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

Minnesota Wildflowers. Cypripedium acaule (Stemless Lady’s-slipper). Retrieved 27 May 2017.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Cypripedium acaule. Retrieved 27 May 2017.

Anne McGrath. Wildflowers of the Adirondacks (EarthWords, 2000), p. 27, Plate 13.

Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny. A Field Guide to Wildflowers. Northeastern and North-central North America (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968), pp. 14-15, 212-213.

Doug Ladd. North Woods Wildflowers (Falcon Publishing, 2001), p. 88.

Lawrence Newcomb. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Little Brown and Company, 1977), pp. 22-23.

Ruth Schottman. Trailside Notes. A Naturalist’s Companion to Adirondack Plants (Adirondack Mountain Club, 1998), pp. 73-76.

National Audubon Society. Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. Eastern Region. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), pp. 469, 653-654.

William K. Chapman et al., Wildflowers of New York in Color (Syracuse University Press, 1998), pp. 64-65.

Gary Wade et al. Vascular Plant Species of the Forest Ecology Research and Demonstration Area, Paul Smiths, New York. USDA Forest Service. Research Note NE-380, p. 4. Retrieved 22 January 2017.

Mark J. Twery, at al. Changes in Abundance of Vascular Plants under Varying Silvicultural Systems at the Forest Ecosystem Research and Demonstration Area, Paul Smiths, New York. USDA Forest Service. Research Note NRS-169. Retrieved 22 January 2017, p. 7.

William K. Chapman. Orchids of the Northeast. A Field Guide (Syracuse University Press, 1997), pp. 20-21.

Paul Martin Brown. Wild Orchids of the Northeastern United States. A Field Guide (Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 62-63.

John Eastman. The Book of Forest and Thicket: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America (Stackpole Books, 1992), pp. 117-119.

Plants for a Future. Cypripedium acaule – Aiton. Retrieved 26 July 2017.

Steven Foster and James A. Duke. Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), p. 156.

University of Michigan. Native American Ethnobotany. A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants. Cypripedium acaule Ait. Retrieved 26 July 2017.

Allen J. Coombes. Dictionary of Plant Names (Timber Press, 1994), p. 55.

Wildflowers of the Adirondack Park

Lady Slipper Orchids

Botanical Name: Paphiopedilum orchids species and hybrids

Lady Slipper Orchids are among the few terrestrial orchids commonly grown indoors.

There are 60 species of Paphiopedilum orchids in the wild — growing in climates ranging from the cool, high Himalayas to the hot, rocky terrain near the South China Sea.

Its unusual blossoms have a slipper-shaped pouch that is often in a contrasting color to the rest of the flower. It has long, flaring side petals and a showy dorsal sepal (that’s the top part of the bloom).

Bloom time varies with the species. Flowers last for several weeks and range in color from soft pastels to any exotic combination of rich, earthy tones.

It has strap-like leathery leaves that are solid dark green or attractively mottled. Oddly, leaf color will tell you their temperature preferences. Paphiopedilum orchids with solid-green leaves like cool temperatures and those with mottled leaves need more warmth.

Dry air can be deadly to orchids. A wet pebble tray, cool-mist room humidifier or regular misting will help to maintain at least 50% humidity that will keep your orchids happy.

Paphs seem to grow better when surrounded by other paphs — or even other types of plants. Coming together as a group raises the humidity around these moisture-loving orchids. Or perhaps they just like the distinguished company.

Repotting Lady Slipper Orchids

Plant in a loose medium, such as an orchid mix that allows plenty of air around the roots. This type of medium decomposes over time, becoming compact and slowing drainage, so it’s a good idea to repot your orchids every couple years. Don’t over-pot. Use a pot that’s 1-2 inches wider to allow 2-years’ growth because orchids do best when slightly crowded.

Repotting how-tos: To repot, gently shake off the old medium and dip the roots in a bucket of tepid water to get rid of the clinging stuff. Spread the roots over fresh mix in the bottom of the pot. Once positioned, fill the rest of the pot with mix so that the plant is stable, making sure that the junction of roots and stem are slightly below the surface. Don’t be afraid to plant the roots a little deep — they tend to climb out of the pot. You can top-dress it, if you need to.

Caring for Lady Slipper Orchids

Origin: Tropical Asia

Height: Up to 24 in (60 cm)

Light: Moderate to bright light, no direct sun. Paphs need bright, indirect sunlight to bloom. Lady slipper orchids also do well under fluorescent lights.

Water: Keep mix evenly moist at all times. Paphs prefer more moisture than epiphytic orchids. And if you keep your orchid under grow lights, it’ll need watering more often. Just don’t overdo it. Too-frequent watering can cause root rot.

Humidity: Requires moist air — preferably 50-60% relative humidity. Set pot on a tray of wet pebbles and mist leaves daily with room-temperature water. Or use a room humidifier.

Temperature: 60-65°F/16-18°C nights and 75-80°F/24-27°C days. To ensure blooming, give your orchid slightly cooler nighttime temperatures. A 15° difference will do.

Soil: Orchid potting mix or 2 parts fine-grade fir bark: 1 part perlite or sand: 1 part sphagnum moss.

Fertilizer: Feed with an organic orchid fertilizer, or fish emulsion, twice a month during the growing season.

Propagation: Division. Pull or cut the fans of the leaves apart into clumps of at least 2-3 growths.

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Lady Slipper Care: How To Grow Lady Slipper Orchids

There’s just something special about wild lady slipper orchids (Cypripedium). Despite many claims to the contrary, these stunning flowers no longer require long hikes through the woods to be enjoyed. Growing a lady slipper wildflower can be accomplished just as easily, with a little effort, in your own garden. In fact, they make interesting specimens in the woodland garden.

Information About Wild Lady Slipper Orchids

Cypripedium species are native across much of North America as well as parts of Europe. This adorable little plant has only two leaves, which branch out from the center where its single flower stalk also grows. The unique flower looks just like a lady’s slipper (oftentimes spelled as such), closed tightly except for a small opening in the front. Blooms range in color from white and yellow to deep pink and nearly purple shades.

There are lots of varieties, some of which are endangered, but most species are now commonly cultivated and obtainable through reputable nurseries and garden suppliers. Some of the more common ones include:

Pink lady slipper – Pink lady slipper (C.acaule) has deep pink flowers about 3 inches long and exhibits a slightly sweet-smelling aroma. It blooms from late June into July.

Yellow lady slipper – The yellow lady slipper (C. calceolus) blooms in early spring and is found mostly in rich woodlands or along the edges or elevated areas of bogs. Its counterpart, the large or greater yellow lady slipper (C. parviflorum pubescens) can grow up to two feet tall, with the flower petals up to 6 inches across.

Showy lady’s slipper – Showy lady’s slipper (C. reginae) is another large species, 1 to 2 feet tall, that grows naturally in bogs, swamps, wet meadows and damp woodlands. The white flower is streaked with pink and blooms in late spring/early summer.

White lady’s slipper – The small, white lady’s slipper (C. candidum) reaches anywhere from 6 to 12 inches in height. This particular species is considered endangered but may be available from reputable nurseries.

How to Grow Lady Slipper Orchids

Collecting and transplanting from the wild is strongly discouraged, though may be performed from your own property or that of someone you know (with permission). When transplanting, include as much of the roots and surrounding soil as possible. Since it’s rather difficult to successfully transplant wild lady slipper orchids, it’s better to obtain them from commercial growers instead.

That being said, lady slippers prefer to grow in areas that mimic their natural environments — shady woodlands. Therefore, try to simulate these conditions when choosing a site in your garden. They need well-aerated soil and moist conditions. Do not put them in full sun or dry locations. Dappled sunlight under tall trees is ideal for growing a lady slipper wildflower.

Lady Slipper Orchid Care

One of the most important parts of lady slipper care involves watering. The soil should be kept moist. If your water is chemically treated, allow it to sit for several days in an open container before using. Otherwise, you should only water the plant with distilled or rainwater.

Lady slipper plants also benefit from a diluted (about a quarter of the normal concentration), balanced fertilizer once or twice between spring and early summer.

Top dressing the plants with about 2 to 3 inches of shredded leaf mulch is also ideal.

Lady Slipper Propagation

Home gardeners can propagate lady slippers, but it takes diligence. Lady slipper propagation is best done either in the spring or fall, but don’t expect flowers until the second year. In fact, in some cases, it can even take more than five years to bloom.

Getting Cypripedium seeds to germinate is difficult. They require long periods of cold temperatures, or stratification, to break seed dormancy. Most also require the help of a certain soil fungus to properly germinate. For this reason, it’s often better to propagate these plants through division, though this too can be time consuming and requires patience.

Rhizomes are a better way of propagating lady slippers. This is done much the same way as that of irises. Dig up a clump and take a cutting from the rhizome or carefully pull rhizomes apart. Replant these in the ground.

To improve their chances of survival, it is recommended that you grow your seedlings or divisions indoors for one or two seasons before planting outside. Use a humus type soil that drains well and retains moisture, preferably containing perlite. Place in a slightly dark area or partially shaded windowsill with no direct sunlight. You can, however, provide fluorescent bulbs. Seeds also need room temperature between 70 and 78°F (21-26°C).

When most North Carolinians think of a lady slipper orchid they picture the native pink Cypripedium growing throughout our Smokey Mountains. However, did you know that the lady slipper is also a type of orchid that grows naturally on six continents?
Orchids come in all shapes and sizes. The lady slipper (Paphiopedilum-also called paph) is native to southeastern Asia and a special addition to any household or orchid collection. Lady slipper orchids come in a wide range of colors and color combinations. Combined with a distinctive pouched lip, these are guaranteed to add drama to any kind of arrangement. Like the Phalaenopsis orchid, it has become one of the most popular ways to bring natural beauty into the home.

So what makes a lady slipper so unique? Lady slippers are a sympodial terrestrial orchid, meaning they grow on the ground and have multiple growing points. Lady slippers grow horizontally as opposed to the Phalaenopsis orchid, which is monopodial and grows from a single stem increasing in height with age.

Lady slippers’ terrestrial roots are short, thick, and spongy and their leaves are thin and often mottled, making them very attractive even when not flowering. In general, green-leaved paphs prefer cooler temperatures while mottled-leaved paphs prefer warmer temperatures, but both are very adaptable. They can withstand temperatures down to 40 degrees and temperatures as high as 90 degrees.

With their short root systems, lady slippers are perfect for a person who tends to over water plants as these lack pseudobulbs and need to be watered twice per week. As with most orchids, be sure not to water at the center of the plant as this can cause crown rot. This being said, they do like to dry out a little in between waterings.

Lady slippers should be repotted every year after blooming in a fine-grain bark mixture that allows good drainage. Since paphs are terrestrial orchids they are happiest growing in shade or medium light. Morning sun is the best.

Fertilize on a regular schedule with a 20-20-20 fertilizer during the winter, and a high nitrogen fertilizer during the warmer growing months. Many Paphiopedilums can produce several flowers over the course of a few months so wait until the blooming spike turns brown before cutting it off. Make sure to stake the bloom while growing to prevent the weight of the bulb from bending the stem. Once the bloom is opened, a cooler temperature around 65 degrees can help prolong the bloom, which should last for two months.

While some may argue that lady slippers tend to be a bit temperamental, with the right light, water, and fertilizer they are an easy tropical orchid for anyone to grow. Their colors are striking and the foliage is a decoration all in itself. Be forewarned, after bringing one home, you may find yourself addicted to this orchid.

Photos courtesy of Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden.

Christian Sloan enjoys caring for orchids both at home and while working in the greenhouse at Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden in Raleigh.

Lady’s Slipper Season

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

I’ll never forget my first encounter with lady’s slippers. While hiking the Long Trail in southern Vermont one June, we camped near a remote pond. Our tent site beneath an evergreen canopy was surrounded by the flowers. Each hung from a stalk that arose from a pair of large, parallel-veined basal leaves. As a breeze blew through our campsite, hundreds of pink pouches bobbed gently ― an incredible sight.

The lady’s slipper, whose genus name Cypripedium is Greek for “Venus’s slipper,” is our best known native orchid. The pink lady’s-slipper, or moccasin flower, that I saw is the most common lady’s slipper in the Northeast. It grows in acidic soils and is often found in oak and white pine forests.

The lady’s slipper has an unusual flower ― its petals are fused together into a hollow pouch. It’s also a deceptive flower ― luring bumblebees inside for pollination with its color and fragrance, but offering no nectar in return. A bee enters through a hole in the center of the pouch where the petals fold in. The flower functions like a lobster trap ― easy to enter but difficult to exit the same way.

Inside the pouch, the entrance narrows. A lighter color attracts the bee to the top of the pouch, where there are two exit holes. As it climbs towards an exit, the bee’s back brushes against the bright green stigma (the flower’s female part), and any pollen the bee is carrying from another lady’s slipper rubs off. As it crawls out the exit hole, the bee passes a small projection, the flower’s anther (male part), which smears pollen onto the bee’s back. If the bee visits another lady’s slipper it will deposit this pollen on the female part of that plant. Only a small percentage of flowers are pollinated each year, as without a nectar reward, bees soon learn not to bother with lady’s slippers.

If a flower is pollinated, a fruit begins to grow. By summer’s end, the almond-shaped fruit is one and a half inches long and has three prominent ribs. As the capsule dries, the ribs split open. Thousands of tiny seeds that look like fine sawdust gradually sift out and are dispersed by wind and water.

Orchid seeds develop differently than seeds of other plants. They have no stored starch reserves. When they first germinate, they form a tuber-like structure. This will not grow until joined by a specific species of fungus, which may take a few years. The plant forms a symbiotic relationship with the microscopic fungus, which helps its roots absorb nutrients from the soil. Once the seedling produces green leaves and begins to photosynthesize to create energy, it is less dependent on the fungus. From the time seed is first dispersed, it can take 10 to 17 years for a lady’s-slipper to bloom in the wild.

In addition to the pink lady’s-slippers I saw on my camping trip, several uncommon to rare lady’s slippers are found in the Northeast. The showy lady’s-slipper, whose species name reginae means “queen” in Latin, is a spectacular, large white flower with a rose pouch that grows in calcareous (limy) fens and swamps. In 1929, Morris and Eames described it as “the crowning glory of our northern bogs.” There are also three varieties of yellow lady’s-slippers in our region. The most dramatic of these is the northern small yellow lady’s-slipper, deep yellow with scarlet markings inside; petals and sepals are suffused with dark chestnut-purple. It has an intense, sweet fragrance and prefers northern white cedar swamps and fens. There is also the ram’s-head lady’s-slipper, a rare reddish flower with a conical pouch that grows in rich, moist forest soil and cedar swamps.

Many species of lady’s slippers have declined because of habitat conversion and digging by gardeners and commercial collectors. Browsing can be a factor where deer populations are high and natural succession can shade out some species.

Orchids are challenging to grow in the garden as they are very particular about soil and habitat conditions. Some nurseries have learned to propagate lady’s slippers from seed and nursery-grown plants are now available to gardeners, so there is no need to disturb wild populations.

“People get the orchid bug,” said Bill Brumback, Conservation Director at the New England Wild Flower Society. “Lady’s slippers are usually where it starts.” Lady’s slippers are in bloom from late May through late June. In the Upper Valley, a great place to check out showy lady’s-slippers is the Eshqua Bog Natural Area in Hartland, Vermont, jointly owned and managed by the New England Wild Flower Society and The Nature Conservancy of Vermont.

Susan Shea is a naturalist, freelance writer, and conservation consultant who lives in Brookfield, Vermont.

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Where the Wild Things Are: Pink Lady Slipper Orchids and Poachers

by Heather McCargo • June 12, 2015

Some of our most beautiful native plants do not belong in our gardens. When you see them for sale in a nursery, they are more often than not dug from the wild. The most common species collected in the wild are ferns, slow-growing woodland wildflowers such as trillium, bloodroot, hepatica, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, lady slipper orchids, and sods of bunchberry and lowbush blueberry.

The pink lady slipper orchid is a good example of a wild creature that does not want to be tamed. Blooming in late spring, this acid-woodlands plant looks like no other, and a large patch in bloom is spectacular. It is easily recognized by its pink pouch-shaped flower on a single 12-inch stem with two bright-green pleated leaves at its base. The flowers are a challenge to pollinate and it is the native bumblebees that are up for the task of climbing through the narrow opening down to the base of the pouch where they hope to find nectar. There is no nectar, just pollen, so after visiting a few flowers, the bees learn it is not worth the effort and hence many flowers do not get pollinated and produce seeds. If, however, a flower is successfully pollinated, it will produce thousands of tiny seeds. These seeds, like the plant, depend on wild soil fungi to germinate and grow.

These conditions are very difficult to replicate in cultivation, so no one commercially propagates pink lady slipper orchids. If you see one for sale, it has certainly been dug up, and transplanting it is unlikely to be successful. Enjoy it in the wild, advocate for its protection, but do not covet it for your garden!

Other woodland species, such as ferns, trilliums, bloodroot and other spring ephemerals, can be propagated in a nursery. I have grown many woodland species from seeds and spores, but it is often a slow process. Trillium, for example, is not difficult to propagate, but it is time consuming, and it requires an understanding of the seeds and the forest understory that is its natural home. I will explain how to grow trillium from seed, and then you will understand why a nursery that propagates this plant cannot sell it for a mere $5.00.

Maine has four species of trillium that all bloom in spring. They are beautiful and dramatic, with three-petaled flowers atop three whorled leaves. The blossoms may be white, pale yellow, bicolored white with red, or maroon. Six to eight weeks after the plant blooms, the seedpod ripens by suddenly softening and falling off the plant. Ants immediately carry the seeds back to their nest, eat the nutritious, fleshy white protrusion attached to the shiny, dark-brown seeds, and discard the seeds. If conditions are good (trillium likes a humus-y woodland soil with adequate moisture and shade), the seed will lie dormant and germinate after the second spring (yes, nearly two years later). At age 7, it may have its first bloom. A mature trillium plant with multiple blooming stems can be decades old. So if you see a trillium plant for sale in a nursery with pricing similar to other perennials, you can be pretty sure it was not nursery-propagated. Ask the nursery – if they cannot tell you how it was propagated, assume it was dug up in the wild. Let them know that this is unacceptable.

If you purchase plants that were collected in the wild, you are undermining the few nurseries that are taking the time to propagate these slower-growing plants. Sadly, in Maine there are no laws about collecting native plants on private land and selling them for profit (other parts of the country have stricter regulations against poaching and require a permit if they do allow any wild harvesting). The only species that are protected in Maine are those listed as rare or endangered; (you can see a list of Maine’s rare and endangered plants on the website). Many of the first native plant conservation organizations, such as the New England Wildflower Society, based in Massachusetts, formed over a hundred years ago because wild plant populations were being decimated by unscrupulous plant collectors. Needless to say, shrinking wild lands and a growing human population are making the situation even worse today. In addition, deer relish trillium and other woodland wildflowers, so they are being assaulted on all fronts.

So admire the natives who truly deserve their place in the wild. If you are interested in growing some of the more slow-growing woodland wildflowers like trillium, learn to propagate them yourself, so that you are helping to increase, rather than decrease, their numbers.

Not all wild things want to be tamed.

More information:

  • Navigating the nurseries: how to find native plants

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