Mother Nature Monday: The Ladyslipper
Over the years, I’ve noticed that there is always one flower that someone asks about on every wildflower hike I lead. The Ladyslipper. It certainly was one of the first wildflowers I learned to recognize. Ladyslippers belong to the Orchid Genus Cypripedium. “Cypris” is another name for Venus, the goddess of Love and Beauty and “pedis” means foot. This lovely orchid could be called the “Foot of Venus”. I like the common name “Ladyslipper” much better.
All Ladyslippers in North America bloom in the spring of the year. In the Southern Appalachian Mountains, there are five species of Ladyslippers. They are very slow growing and sometimes take up to four or five years to grow from seed to flowering plant.
The Pink Ladyslipper is the one most commonly found in Graham County and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Slickrock Wilderness. However, that being said, it is not that common. I always get a special thrill when I see one or a cluster blooming on the hillsides. When I first moved to this area, I saw dozens of what I thought were ladyslippers popping up on my property. I was sadly disappointed to discover that I was mistaken and that the plants that I saw growing were another herbaceous wildflower called False Hellebore. At first glance, the leaves look similar, as do the leaves of the wild onion or ramp. If you examine the leaf of the ladyslipper closely you will see that the paired basal ladyslipper leaves are thicker and covered with tiny hairs. You can also observe strong parallel veins going from the base of the large leaf to the tip.
Yellow Ladyslippers, and there are several species, can also be found here in the area. They are unusual, and one of the reasons is that they prefer a more basic soil type. I believe that when wildflower lovers find the yellow ones in Graham County, they tend to keep the location quiet. The temptation to transplant “just one” to your house can quickly deplete a population. There is one very good reason why transplanting ladyslippers often fail, no matter how careful you are.
Ladyslipper orchids have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus in the soil called Rhizoctonia. They require the presence of this fungus to survive and reproduce. In fact, a great many orchid species need the help of a fungus to get started. Many orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to help break open each seed. The fungus thread is like an umbilical cord and will pass on food and nutrients to the tiny seed. Once the seed has grown roots and has established itself the feeding reverses and the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. They help each other and are dependent on each other. If you dig up a ladyslipper orchid and move it to a location with no Rhizoctonia, it will be unable to spread and thrive.
Bees pollinate Ladyslipper orchids by slipping into the little slit at the bottom of the flower. The bees are attracted by the color and fragrance of the flower. Once inside the little slipper, they have trouble getting back out and buzz around inside, bouncing off the sides and collecting lots of pollen on their bodies. When they finally push their way back out, they are covered with pollen and transmit it to other ladyslippers in the vicinity.
The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest contains both Pink and Yellow Ladyslippers. Watch for the blooms in the spring and tread gently around them if you are taking their picture.