The wildflower most often asked about by Garden visitors is the Showy Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae). 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.
While 42 orchids are native to the state of Minnesota, the Garden contains only two: The Showy Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae):
It 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. [see note 1 below]
The Yellow Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens:
These 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.
Many attempts have been made over the years to establish other orchids (see note 2 below) - the futility of which will be mentioned later, but for historical reference, here are some notations from Eloise Butler’s garden log:
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.
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.
Today no commercial nursery is selling artificially propagated lady’s slippers. [See Note 3 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.
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. Additional information below provided by Gary Bebeau.]
Note 1: The current DNR census lists 47 orchids native to Minnesota, not counting individual varieties or subspecies; plus one introduced species.
Note 2: As late as 1951 in her Garden Inventory, Martha Crone reported 25 orchids growing in the Garden including varieties - list in the Crone notes below the photos.
Note 3: 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
The plant records left by Eloise Butler and Martha Crone include 46 listed species of orchids that were either indigenous or introduced by them. The total could be higher because some of their planting notes simply list a common name such as "coralroot" without indicating a species. All but seven of the 46 are native to Minnesota. Those native are illustrated below; the most current scientific name is used, some of which have changed from earlier days.
Not listed in the article above, no longer extant, but with information/photo sheets.
All are native to Minnesota except Helleborine.
Not listed in the article above, no longer extant but without additional information/photo sheets.
All but one are native to Minnesota.
Six other orchids not native to Minnesota were also once in the Garden. These are, with introduction date:
Cypripedium fasciculatum - Clustered Lady's slipper - 1949
Cypripedium montanum - Mountain Lady's slipper - 1948
Cypripedium passerinum - Sparrowegg Lady's slipper - 1952
Platanthera blephariglottis var. blephariglottis - White Fringed Orchid - 1913
Platanthera ciliaris - Yellow Fringed Orchid - 1916
Platanthera grandiflora - Greated Purple Fringed Orchid - 1927.
On May 23, 1937 Dr. Roberts (Roberts, Thomas Sadler, 1858-1946, who wrote Birds of Minnesota) was in the Garden to examine the clump of 24 Ram's head Lady's slippers that Martha had transplanted from Cedar Forest the previous summer. The clump had 30 blooms. He noted it the finest clump he had ever seen. Martha noted in her report to the Board of Park Commissioners, the reestablishment of the plant after many years of failed effort. She also mentioned success with Calypso (Calypso bulbosa) and commonly known as the Fairy Slipper Orchid, a most beautiful small orchid. [photos up above]
On May 25, 1937 W. J. Breckenridge, Director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, was in the Garden to look at the Ram's heads. He later sent Martha a photo of them and noted what a fine clump it was. Unfortunately in 1938 they all died out - according to Martha from an excess of water. She tried again in 1950, '51 and '53. Eloise Butler had introduced the orchid in 1915 and planted it again in 1921, '22 and '32.
The list of 25 orchids still found in the Garden in 1951 is as follows:
Aplectrum hyemale, Arethusa bulbosa, Calopogon tuberosus, Calypso bulbosa, Corallorhiza maculata, C. trifida, Cypripedium acaule, C. arietinum, C. parviflorum (2 varieites), C. candidum, C. reginae, Goodyera pubescens, G. repens, Platanthera aquilonis, P. lacera, P. psychodes, P. ciliaris, P. clavellata, Liparis loeselii, Malaxis unifolia, Galearis spectabilis, Pogonia ophioglossoides, Spiranthes cernua, S. romanzoffiana.
Martha's successor, Ken Avery, also tried his luck planting the Ram's head in 1973. Ken wrote extensively about the troubles with another orchid - the Stemless.
Last year while at Itasca Park, a friend who lives in Bagley gave us a personal tour of Northwestern Minnesota and at the end of the tour stopped at the Kingsburys to introduce us. The Kingsburys have a rock and gem shop 6 miles north of Bemidji, and I must say an excellent one; but we stopped to see his garden. Mr. Kingsbury grows Pink Stemless Lady’s slippers and Ram's head Lady’s slippers with the ease and success most people reserve for petunias. He actually has beds of these impossibly difficult flowers growing and thriving in his lawn. I have never seen anything like it!
As you might suspect, Mr. Kingsbury turned out to be a very personable, friendly man and when he heard what I did he offered to show me where some of these precious plants were growing if I could come back in the spring. Again, as you might suspect, I went back there this spring (the first weekend in June) and he showed me the place where they grow -- and grow they did! I believe that there averaged a Pink Stemless every twenty feet through the woods (Jack pines) and in a small area there were seemingly hundreds of Ram’s-heads growing. It was unbelievable.
We took a sufficient number, and they are now in the Garden and at this time appear to be quite comfortable. I hope that in seeing them growing in the wild and by studying the way that Mr. Kingsbury grows them, I also shall be able to grow them successfully. Incidentally the woods where we obtained these plants is scheduled to be cut or I never would have taken them.
Ken's comments were published in July 1973 in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 22 No. 3
Cary George, Ken Avery's successor, also tried planting the Stemless. In 1991 he wrote that the ones he had planted in 1989 had diminished to one less vigorous clump and he would no longer attempt to establish plantings of it, so he like all his predecessors saw that you could not keep them established by transplanting from elsewhere. But Cary was willing to try with another orchid - Orchis spectabilis, the Showy Orchis, that he planted in the spring of 1991 by the front gate, but it did not last many years either.