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Lady’s Slippers

Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

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Showy Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) can be found growing in five of the six New England states (all but Rhode Island). They are ranked as “extremely rare” in three of these states (CT, MA and NH), and uncommon in Vermont and Maine. To gaze upon a flowering clonal cluster of these striking orchids is a thrill no matter where you are in the Northeast.

Given their rarity and distinctive appearance, all populations of Showy Lady’s Slippers are well documented. However, one can still unexpectedly come upon them. In Vermont, where they are on the “List of Rare and Uncommon Native Vascular Plants,” an historical population that had not been seen since 1902 was rediscovered by the Green Mountain National Forest staff in 2009. It consisted of more than 1000 plants.

When you’re traveling through wetlands (forested or open) and moist woods, generally in limy sites, at low to moderate elevations, keep an eye open for these rare beauties. Showy Lady’s Slippers dramatically announce their presence at this time of year with their distinctive and colorful blossoms. (For more natural history on this species, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down and on the right-hand side, search for “Showy Lady’s Slipper.”)

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Lady Slippers & Resupination

6-6-18 inverted pink lady's slippers by Sue WEtmore DSCN3871 (002)There is just as much learning, or more, going on at my end of this blog as there is at the readers’. A Vermont naturalist recently sent me a photograph of an upside down Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Over 50 years in the field and I have never come across this phenomenon, nor was I familiar with the process that produced it.

Some flowers, including many orchids, are “resupinate.” While the flower is developing, the flower stalk does a 180 degree twist, bringing what would be the bottom of the flower to the top. With lady’s slippers, the labellum, or lip, is inverted, so that it ends up not above the other two petals, but below them. This modified petal, or pouch, serves to attract pollinating insects and acts as a landing platform for them. For some unknown reason, the stalks of the pictured Pink Lady’s Slippers never twisted, allowing us to see the original position of the labellum in both flowers. (Photo by Sue Wetmore)

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The Persistent Capsules of Lady’s Slippers

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While the pink, yellow and white pouches of lady’s slippers no longer grace the landscape, the results of their pollination do. Capsules rising above the surrounding ground on single stalks can be seen where lady’s slippers used to reside. These fruits will persist through the winter and even into the next flowering season.

A close look reveals slits along the length of the capsule. Wind, rain or wildlife passing by will shake the capsule, causing thousands of dust-like seeds to be dispersed. Because they carry no food reserves, these seeds must establish a relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus in order to germinate. (photo: Showy Lady’s Slipper flower and fruit)

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Ram’s-head Lady’s Slippers Flowering

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Because of the small size of its flower, the brevity of its flowering period, and its rarity (ranked critically imperiled or imperiled throughout its range in New England), Ram’s-Head Lady’s Slipper is notoriously hard to find.  Its preferred habitat is moist, mossy bogs, but it can also be found in mixed woods and uplands.  If you’re fortunate enough to set eyes on one of these orchids, the diminutive size and conical-shape of its flower, compared to other Cypripedium species (Yellow, Pink and Showy Lady’s Slippers), will be strikingly apparent.

The flowers (which appear only if the plant is at least four inches high) mature in mid-May to early June, often developing very rapidly and typically lasting only a week or so. The sepals, lateral petals, and particularly the lower lip, or labellum (pouch made of fused petals), produce a sweet odor to attract potential pollinators, such as small bees.   Once the flower is fertilized, the upper sepal lowers over the opening of the pouch (see insert), excluding additional visitors. Although individual plants can produce copious numbers of minute seeds, reproduction appears to be largely asexual via offshoots of parent plants.

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

showy2  231The month of June can’t go by without a mention of Showy Lady’s Slippers. Just fifty years ago, this orchid could be found over most of the Northeast. Habitat loss and an exploding deer population are considered major factors in Showy Lady’s Slipper’s decline, making it endangered or on the verge of extinction in many areas. Although rare, it is still locally abundant, particularly in fens (peat wetlands that get their water from rainfall and surface water).

As with Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers, one of Showy Lady’s Slipper’s three petals is greatly modified into a large inflated pouch called the labellum . (The pouch’s color can vary widely from year to year, depending on the ambient temperature. Cooler conditions appear to produce more intense color.) The petals on either side of the pouch attract pollinators with an alluring odor, but the insects that enter into the pouch are in for a disappointment, as lady’s slippers produce little or no nectar. The structure and positioning of the pistil and stamens are such that they encourage cross-pollination to take place, which is crucial, as lady’s slippers rarely self-pollinate.

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Pink Lady’s Slippers Flowering

pink lady's slipper2   223Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), also known as Moccasin Flowers, differ from Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers in two fairly obvious ways. One is that the stalk the single flower is borne on bears no leaves. In addition, the pouch, or labellum, has a vertical slit running the length of it, rather than an oval opening on the top. Bumblebees are the only insect strong enough to push their way through this slit and are their main pollinators. In New England, almost 25% of the Pink Lady’s Slipper population have white flowers (see insert).


Yellow Lady’s Slipper Flowering

5-30-13 yellow lady's slipper 063There are only about three short weeks in the late spring when the blossoms of Yellow Lady’s Slippers grace our woodlands and wetlands. The production of an orchid is a complicated process. If pollination and fertilization are successful, hundreds of thousands of some of the smallest seeds of any flowers are scattered by the wind. The seeds of Yellow Lady’s Slippers (and other orchids), unlike those of most flowering plants, contain no food for the seedling plant. In addition, the coating surrounding the seed is extremely tough, so much so that the seed can’t germinate until Rhizoctonia fungi digest the outer coating, which allows the inner seed to access soil nutrients. This can take two years or more and then it may take another few years for the plant to produce a flower.