The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

P. O. Box 3793
Minneapolis MN 55403

Showy Lady's-slipper

Orchids in the Garden

Text by Cary George
Eloise Butler Wild Flower Garden

Showy Lady's-slipper
The Showy Lady’s-slipper is easily identified by its pure white petals and sepals with a combination of pink and white on the pouch. According to Orchids in Minnesota by Welby Smith, there are clumps of lady’s-slippers in swamps that may be 100 years old.

The wildflower most often asked about by Garden visitors is the Showy Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae Walter). Each spring dozens of inquiries are made about the existence of this wild orchid in the Garden, its cultural requirements, sources of purchase and the legal and ethical ramifications of digging and transporting it. By the time it blooms at the end of May, I must confess, I’m relieved. Yet, when I walk the bog trail each morning to open the back gate, I stop to look at this wild orchid as the morning sun filters through the dewy bog air. Its beauty always amazes me. It must be one of the most magnificent flowers God ever created.

The Showy Lady’s-slipper has, of course been the official state flower since 1893 - not without some confusion, however. In the original state senate resolution it is called the moccasin flower.

Yellow Lady's-slipper
The Yellow Lady’s-slippers flower earlier than the Showy Lady’s-slipper and they also are more abundant in the state of Minnesota. The yellow slippers have long thin sepals that are spirally twisted. There are two varieties of yellow slippers [in Minnesota], large and small flowered. They are pollinated by small bees.

While 42 orchids are native to the state of Minnesota, the Garden contains only two: The Showy Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae ) and the Yellow Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens.

Many attempts have been made over the years to establish other orchids (see note 1 below) - the futility of which will be mentioned later, but for historical reference, here are some notations from Eloise Butler’s garden log:

Showy Orchid
Showy Orchid (Galearis spectabilis) ©Jeff Habeman, Wisconsin Flora

The decline of the lady’s-slippers’ population in the Twin Cities is a sad tale. In the early part of the 1900s Pink Lady’s-slippers, Yellow Lady’s-slippers, and Showy Lady’s-slippers could be found in abundance in what is now the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Stories about young boys digging lady’s-slippers in the tamarack bogs and selling them for 50 cents are numerous.

moccasin flower
Stemless Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule) ©G D Bebeau.

Attempts to transplant wild orchids are thwarted by many specific cultural requirements that are virtually impossible to replicate. They have a symbiotic relationship with certain soil fungus called “mycorrhiza.” This relationship is complex and not fully understood. Secondly, transplantation is difficult because small, hair-like feeder roots are usually severed while digging. These roots extend long distances from the crown of the plant are are difficult to even see. So while the plant will appear healthy after transplanting, rot slowly works its way to the crown of the plant through the severed feeder roots. The plant slowly declines and usually dies within three to four years. With a mortality rate of more than 50 percent, it seems the ethical question of whether wild orchids should be transplanted has an obvious answer.

White Lady's-slipper
The White Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) Photo © Derek Anderson, Wisconsin Flora.

Today no commercial nursery is selling artificially propagated lady’s-slippers. [See Note 2 below] Both seed and tissue culture have proven to be too slow, unpredictable and unprofitable. As a result any wild orchids sold in nurseries are dug from the wild - ultimately depleting one of Minnesota’s most exquisite wildflowers. Both the Orchid society of Minnesota and the Minnesota Native Plant Society oppose selling orchids or any native plants taken from the wild. It is also largely against the law as according to state statutes.

Ramshead Lady's-slipper
Ram's-jead Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium arientinum). Photo from a Kodachrome taken by Garden Curator Martha Crone on June 9, 1954.

Everyone is encouraged to appreciate lady’s-slippers in their natural settings and not attempt the nearly impossible task of cultivating your own plants. Visit the Garden beginning in mid-May to see several clumps of Yellow Lady’s-slipper on the trail leading to the visitor center. Or come in late May or early June to view the Showy Lady’s-slippers along the bog trail. [end of original article]

More Photos and info sheets:
Showy Lady's-slipper
Yellow Lady's-slipper (large flowered)

Orchids no longer extant:
Yellow Lady's-slipper (small flowered)
Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid
Northern Green Orchid

Current Garden Curator Susan Wilkins has also provided information on several rescue missions in Northern Minnesota. (Article)

Note 1: As late as 1951 in her Garden Inventory, Martha Crone reported 15 orchids growing in the Garden.
Note 2: Recently, the nursery trade has learned to grow them commercially (see this article) and that is the only place where one can legally acquire this plant as it is protected by law in the wild.

Cary George was Gardener at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden from 1987 through 2003 and was the fourth person to be in charge of the Garden since its founding in 1907.

This article was originally published in The Fringed Gentian™, Spring 2000, vol. 48 No.2