Monday, June 17, 2013

Ladyslipper Season

June 17 has snuck up on me! This is the peak of the Ladyslipper season here, and I can't let it go by without a post about our local Cypripediums. It's a long post, but then they are fascinating plants.

We have 4 species in the Ottawa Valley, one of which is considered to have two sub-species. At one time it was thought that there was one more species, Calypso bulbosa, which, while not a Cypripedium, does have a slipper-like lip and so is often considered one of the Ladyslippers. But the references are to areas which are now totally built over, or to Gatineau Park. It is of course possible that there are still Calypsos in the Park, but no locations are officially known at this time. In the Canadian Field-Naturalist Special Issue on Orchids in the Ottawa District, 1997, the reference to Calypso includes the sad note, 'observations...(were) made at two now extinct colonies in Eastern Ontario'. The Calypso orchid is common enough in the West, and like so many plants native to the Western half of Canada, it has trouble surviving our warmer and muggier summers.

Here is a collage of our local Slippers.

As you can see, our Ladies are well-slippered.

Starting at the top left, our undoubtedly most famous Cyp is C. reginae, the Showy Ladyslipper. This is an orchid people travel to see, and usually consider it worth the trip. It stands up to 2 feet tall, the flowers are usually 2 to a stalk and up to 5" across. The sepals are pure white, the lip is white with a varying amount of rose stippling.

The Purdon Conservation Area, which has an interesting history, having started as one man's hobby, showcases the Showies. You can check their website (click the link) for a report on the blooming schedule. I just did, and they report few plants in bloom. It is a late year, the nights having been cool, so the Showies are yet to do their thing. The site also tells you how to get there, etc. etc. By the way, this is a great place to take a non-hiking friend as you can see everything from the boardwalk. It is an easy walk, and you can have lunch in Almonte afterwards. Another place to see them, and also an easy walk, is the McNamara Trail in Arnprior. I don't know the names of the various trails, but if you stay to the left from the start you will soon come to a long boardwalk, and there are wonderful plants of Showies at each end. You'll have to look into the low trees and shrubs, but you'll see them. Last year these were the largest and most impressive Showies I saw anywhere, and that is saying something.

Show Ladyslipper is not too difficult to grow, but does not moisture at the roots, especially in the spring.

Our next most famous Cyp is the Pink Ladyslipper. I think it is mostly famous because everybody either jumps to tell you that you can't grow it, or asks how and where can they get one.... both are kind of right. It is difficult to grow, no question. It needs moisture but perfect drainage, acidic pH, dappled sun, no disturbance, and just the right soil fungi. Not something most home gardeners can provide. But if you have a suitable woodland or marshy area, then they aren't any harder to grow than any other orchid.

C. acaule flowers stand about 18" above the large soft pleated leaves. Each growth sends up two leaves, with the flower stem arising directly from the 'nose'. A happy plant can spread to many 'noses' over the years. One I first noticed as a tiny leaf in 2002 now has 8 growths. It appeared in my tiny marsh-side bog and seems happy growing in the moss. The patch in the picture is taken elsewhere in my woods, in the opening left when some large Pines went over. C. acaule and White Pines have a close relationship, both needing the same or similar soil fungi to start their growth cycle. There had been no Ladyslippers there for many many years, but when the Pines fell, they appeared in numbers. The seeds must have lain dormant in the soil for a very long time. Many did not survive because once the Pines were down, the area became very hot and dry in the summer. This patch has, however, done well. I moved several plants into my Sampler Garden, and they have done fine as well. One thing to know about orchids: they have different roots than other plants. They are few in number, do not branch very much, are thick and covered with a spongy coating that absorbs water and nutrients, and they are very susceptible to fungus or bacterial infection. So damaging the roots is very serious. Stepping close to the plant can break the roots and the plants may not be able to grow new roots in time to build up sufficient reserves to survive. That is one reason transplanting them is so difficult, and another is that the roots tend to be much deeper and more widely spread than one thinks. I've seen people dig them as if they were a border perennial and they were reluctant to give away too much soil.... not only bad, but won't work.

The Large Yellow Ladyslipper is, to my mind, our most beautiful Slipper. The bright yellow flower, set off by the light green leaves, catches my eye just right. I have several clumps, although none of them were here naturally. There are some on my neighbour's side..... maybe seeds will waft over some day? Anyway, these are the easiest Cyps to grow. They do well in any humusy woodsy soil. They can take some shade, or more sun if they get enough moisture. Again, clumps can become quite large. I got my first clump from someone who grew them beside her garage. They were between the garage and the sidewalk, in pure rubble. She never watered them, or weeded them, and she picked them for her vases. When I saw them there were hundreds of blooms. I really wish she would come back from Vermont and advise me about mine, they aren't doing nearly so well!

Botanists have decided our Yellow Ladyslippers are different enough from the European one to be a different species, so they are now C. parviflorum. I say 'they' because there are two forms: C. parviflorum pubescens and C. p. Makasin. The latter is much smaller and has redder sepals. Telling one from the other is like identifying Canada Goldenrod: there are two ways to do it. You can spend a couple of hours with a number of specimens, your textbooks and a strong magnifying glass and identify Solidago canadensis with a 95% probability of being correct, or you can glance at your specimen, mentally eliminate a few it can't be, and announce that it is S. canadensis and have a 95% chance of being right. Actually with the Yellow Slippers, it is easier: if you are wondering, then it is C. p. pubescens. If you are looking at C. p. Makasin, you'll know it. Trust me.

The last, and least, of our Slippers is the Ram's-head. It is small, only about 8 - 10" tall, and the flower is, well, dingy. If you get close you'll see it has intriguing details - long hairs around the opening, a delicate stitching of red lines.... great style in the swept-back sepals. But really, this is a plant for the specialist. It is actually fairly easy to grow, but as I said, for the specialist. It does not clump, at least I have never seen it so, and it shabs out quickly after it finishes blooming. If you have a shady mossy spot and you can get a plant, try it.

If you'd like to see the Ram's-head, there are lots in the Marlborough Forest. They bloom a bit later (and for longer) than the others, so you can go see the Yellows, Pinks and Showies first, then go see the Ram's-heads. If you start now you can catch them all this year!


  1. Are your orchids protected species, a lot of ours are protected over here.There are some that grow in gardens, but the rarer varieties are sometimes only growing in secret locations because there are only a handful of that variety in the country. Such an interesting post, you certainly have a good selection.

  2. No, I don't believe any of them are protected. They aren't rare, although the Ram's-head is considered 'uncommon'. What saves a lot of these plants is that most people aren't the least bit interested.

    That said, some of us don't exactly publicize their locations!