Cypripedium Treasures

“The passions that orchids arouse are extraordinary. Not only enchantment and delight, but darker emotions: covetousness, cupidity and greed. You might say of these flowers, as was famously said of a modern British politician, that there is something of the night about them.”

This article from the U.K., A bloom back from the brink is quite a dramatic story about a journalist’s attempts to get official permission to view the last orchid of its kind in the wild, in Great Britain. Apparently the location is a closely guarded state secret, and the story of how he finally accomplished his quest is the stuff of spy novels.

For more than 70 years, the lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, has been the rarest British wild flower, being reduced by collectors not merely to low numbers, but to one plant – a single plant – at a remote site, tenaciously undisclosed and resolutely guarded by those who wish to protect it.

He goes on to write,

Some moments in our lives stand out: this one did for me. You can say it was only a flower, and you can ask what all the fuss is about, but I can only say I was filled with wonder…

…It was partly the privilege of being allowed to see something that is kept so hidden and secret and guarded… partly the beauty of the orchid itself, which in the flesh, as it were, was every bit as stunning as the photographs and paintings of it I had seen.

…This orchid had suffered the fate of so many of its kind around the world. In fact, no British wild flower had ever been the subject of such unrestrained human appetite as this species …The lady’s slipper had been taken to the brink of extinction, down to a single solitary example; yet that last plant, people had saved.

The orchid in question? It is the same one I saw growing by the thousands along the roadway of the Bruce Peninsula two weeks ago. Cypripedium calceolus — the yellow lady slipper.

Remarkable. According to Bruce Peninsula natives, that’s the just the appetizer. The Showy Ladyslipper — Cypripedium reginae — is the real star of the show in that small corner of Ontario.

Sometimes you have to travel a bit to come to appreciate the treasures in our own backyard.

North American Orchids Now in Bloom

Here’s an interesting article about some of the native North American Orchids now in bloom:

Smoky Mountain News – The Naturalists Corner

I was interested in this comment, since I saw so many yellow ladies slippers in bloom last week up on the Bruce Peninsula:

Yellow lady’s-slipper is probably the signature orchid of the Southern Appalachians. The showy, yellow pouch-like or moccasin-shaped flower blooms throughout May at scattered locations in rich woods. There are two varieties of yellow-lady’s slipper in the Southern Appalachian, Cypripedium calceolus and C. calceolus var. pubescens. If the pouch is less than an inch long, the orchid is small yellow lady’s slipper, var. pubescens.

So You Want to Grow Orchids in Your Garden, Huh?

At this time of year cypripedium orchids grow thick along the sides of the road on the Bruce Peninsula and in other parts of North America. Up on the Bruce, passersby speeding along the highway usually assume the flashes of yellow are dandelions, not beautiful ladyslippers, unless they’re in the know. The usual reaction, when people find out, is “I’d like to stop and take some for my garden!!”. I’ve heard it from the lips of my own family and friends, so it’s kind of hard to label all of them as evil orchid-poaching environmental despoilers. It’s an innocent response from people who don’t stop to think that the one little thing we do, which as an isolated event is relatively harmless, is repeated by thousands of others. We all belong to that club, in some fashion.

Without sounding like a nature-bunny nag hag, I try to explain why taking orchids from the wild is a bad idea. The usual mantra of, “if you take one, and everyone else takes one, there won’t be any left” usually doesn’t make much of a dent. Human beings have trouble with the big picture. I have hit on the perfect rational, and one that’s quite true: It’s a waste of time and energy. The odds that a wild-collected terrestrial orchids will survive in your garden are about the same as winning a lottery.

Here’s why. Orchids have a symbiotic relationship with a mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Though each orchid seed pod contains millions of seeds, the seeds must land in some soil containing this fungi if it’s to germinate, and grow. The odds that you’ll have or find that particular fungi in your backyard are pretty slim.

No problem, you say!! I’ll just add some of this mycorrhizal fungi to the soil! Well, for those ambitious enough to try, here are the laboratory instructions. Just remember to buy your cypripediums seeds or plants from an ethical grower.

Good luck!

How to get the micorrhiza (chapter 1)
How to get the micorrhiza (chapter 2)