The woods are wearing pink lipstick.
The luscious and luminous blossoms of the pink lady slipper orchid provide nature’s makeup. Blooming with its unforgettable flower, this special species is one to enjoy, but never uproot.
No matter how much you want to possess this beauty, resist the temptation to dig up any variety of lady slippers. Besides being rare and on the decline in many places, they can be as difficult as a brooding belladonna. Because of specific soil fungus affiliations, replanting a lady slipper orchid almost never works. Enjoy them in their own space at their own time.
Everyone loves these flowers which seem to frolic on the forest floor. Eighteenth Century naturalist and writer Mark Catesby exclaimed “this plant produces the most elegant flower of all the Helleborine tribe, and is in great esteem with the North American Indians for decking their hair.”
These Native Americans called this orchid ‘moccasin flower’ for the same obvious reason we call it a slipper. No matter what language or culture, its name is the same. In France, it is Sabot de Venus (clog of Venus), German, Frauenschuh (Lady’s Shoe), and in Italian, it is Scarpetta di Venere (Venus’ bootee) or “Pianelle di Madonna’ (The Madonna’s slipper). Its scientific name doesn’t waver either, its genus Cypripedium translates to Aphrodite’s foot.
Paul Davies, Jenne Davies and Anthony Huxley related the legend behind the French and German names in their book, Wild Orchids of Britain and Europe, published in 1983:
“. . . In days of old when gods and goddesses walked the earth, Venus was strolling through a forest when a sudden thunderstorm surprised her. She ran for shelter and, in so doing, lost one of her slippers. The next day a young shepherdess, leading her flocks through the woods to pastures beyond, saw the exquisite little shoe and ran to pick it up. However, just as she reached for it the treasure vanished and left there a flower in the shape of the slipper.”
Humans are not the only ones attracted to these blooming beauties and that is a good thing, since pollination success is only possible with the help of interested insects. Davies, Davies, and Huxley described the interesting encounter between blossom and bug:
“A visiting insect slips down into the lip itself where veins guide it past a series of hairs towards a narrow exit. Along this route it brushes against the stamens and some pollen sticks to it. All this proves exhausting for an insect, and if it shortly comes into contact with another flower it has no strength to resist falling into the lip. This time pollen in transferred to the stigma causing cross-pollination. The path followed by the insect is an ingenious one-way system with retreat via the obviously large opening rendered impossible by the slippery sides of the lip. Hairs inside the lip provide the only footholds as the insect makes its way towards a set of transparent ‘window panes’ near the base of the lip.”
Even if you never see this encounter, you can tell whether it has happened. Successfully pollinated lady slippers develop a pod, while those that weren’t as lucky will only have a flag at the end of their stalk.
We humans are as captivated as any insect by lady slippers and we should view their colorful flags, pods and petals as reminders when in the forest to walk lightly and be sure to leave the flowers where they belong. These ones won’t be in bloom forever, so be sure to enjoy them before they slip away.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.