Lovely Lady’s Slipper Orchid
The lovely lady’s slipper orchid is a strange-looking perennial flower, very different from most other flowers. Like other orchids, the lady’s slipper has 3 petals. But unlike its orchid cousins, the lady’s slipper petals are joined together to form a pouch that looks like a dainty slipper fit for a princess. There are five different kinds of lady’s slipper orchid found in Ohio; the pink lady’s slipper and the yellow lady’s slipper are uncommon, while the showy lady’s slipper is a threatened species and two other species are endangered. They require moist acidic soil to grow in, and are mostly found in oak or pine forests, wet woods, swampy places or bogs around Ohio.
Friend of Fungus
Lady’s slipper orchid’s seeds do not develop like those of other plants. The seeds are as tiny as a speck of dust, and they carry very little nutrition inside them. The seeds need the help of a friendly fungus to develop and grow.
A special type of soil fungus, call micorrhizae, nestles in the roots of the lady’s slipper orchid and helps the plant absorb nutrients from the surrounding soil. This symbiotic relationship between flower and fungus is necessary for the orchid’s survival.
A Late Bloomer
The lady’s slipper orchid is a slow grower. In its first year, it may grow only as tall as a pencil tip. From this point it will still take several years before the plant is able to flower!
When the plant is old enough to bloom, the flower is produced at the same time as the leaves. Flowering occurs in the spring, and the fruit inside matures slowly all summer and into fall. In late summer, the next year’s leaves and flowers are produced and remain underground as a short white spike on the roots through the winter. As the fruit, which is like a capsule, dries out in the fall, it slits open. This lets the thousands of minute seeds to be gradually sifted out into the wind, like powder. The seeds are dispersed in fall and winter. The dried flower stalk remains standing through winter, despite heavy snows or strong winds.
Funhouse Tunnel for Bees
The lady’s slipper orchid’s pouch- shaped flower is best pollinated by bumblebees. The bees enter the front of the pouch but can’t get out that way because of the inward folds. Inside the pouch, are sticky hairs covered with some nectar. Once at the top of the pouch, the bee can see that there are two exit holes and pushes its way up and out. On the way out, the bee’s back comes into contact with a bright-green pollen pad right between the exit holes and the bee gets pollen plastered on to the hairs on its back. This way, the pollen-covered bee carries pollen from flower to flower.
The lady’s slipper flower is like a funhouse tunnel for bees, with a one way entrance, then a big chamber with a bright exit sign, and some sticky sweet hairs on the way. With all this trouble, you may wonder why bees bother to go in. The sight and scent of the flower must be pretty attractive to them.
No Place like Home
Lovely lady’s slipper orchids are so comfortable in their forest home that they can live there a very long time. The soil conditions need to be just right, with plenty of friendly fungus. Healthy clumps of wild orchids left undisturbed may live up to 100 years! Never pick a lady’s slipper orchid, or try to transplant it away from its wild home.
Only a handful of state parks, forests and nature preserves have the right habitat for lady's slipper orchids. Most are in the southeast part of Ohio. Best bets for finding lady's slippers in bloom this month are Blue Rock, Burr Oak, Hocking Hills, Lake Hope and Shawnee.
The hairs covering the stem protect the plant from being eaten – they contain a fatty acid that is poisonous to many animals and to people, and can cause a nasty rash.
The lady’s slipper grows best at a soil pH of about 4.0 (the pH of tomato juice).
The lady’s slipper is also known as “Venus’ slipper”, whippoorwill shoes, and Noah’s ark.
To find this lovely plant, go outside to your local Ohio state park or nature preserve and see for yourself how strange-looking the lovely lady’s slipper orchids seem!
Please remember to never pick a lady’s slipper orchid, or try to transplant it away from its wild home.