VIEW ON NATURE: Our Delicate Beauties
By: S. Wendt
Virginia is blessed with three of America’s most beautiful native wildflowers, the pink, the yellow, and the magnificent showy lady’s slippers, all also known as moccasin flowers. These unique orchid flowers look just like a puffy lady’s slipper with a small opening in the front. Their genus, (Cypripedium) is derived from the Greek word referring to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and sandal.
The Pink Lady’s Slipper with its single, light to deep pink colored, slightly sweet smelling, 3-inch flower grows from 6 to 15 inches tall and can live up to 20 years. The single flower stands out on a leafless erect stalk bracketed by two opposing basal leaves with pronounced parallel veins. It blooms from late June into July in mixed hardwood/coniferous forests, often in longstanding beds of pine needles, and definitely in and around a few undisturbed spots in Annandale.
The Yellow Lady’s Slipper comes in the lesser and the greater varieties, with the latter growing up to two feet tall with flower petals 6 inches across. The yellows grow in shady, damp understories of mixed deciduous and coniferous forests to meadows and streambeds. Both varieties grow in multi-stemmed clumps with one to three flowers and two long, thin side petals twisted into spirals (the slipper “laces”). The third, bright yellow petal takes the shape of a light to bright yellow slipper with reddish spots in their interior. I usually spot the first blooms around Mother’s Day in May, mostly in southwest Virginia.
The Showy Lady’s Slipper, is the tallest of these orchids (up to 35” in length) and probably the most stunning. Its Latin species name (reginae) means "queen"; its sturdy, leafy, stalk sports one to three 2-inch long, spherical slipper flowers with inward-rolled edges in a deep rose to magenta color. Petals and sepals are white, oblong and flat. These beauties often grow like ferns in clumps in open wooded swamps or mossy areas with loose soils, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. This orchid lives to be 50 years old and takes 16 years for its first bloom. Although the U.S. Forest Service lists this queen of slippers a Virginia native, I’ve never seen one in the wild (yet). Incidentally, the Showy Lady’s Slipper has been the state flower of Minnesota since 1902. According to their state website:
Pink & White Lady Slipper (cypripedium reginae)
(The pink and white lady slipper is one of Minnesota's rarest wildflowers. Thriving in swamps, bogs, and damp woods, they grow slowly, taking 4 to 16 years to produce their first flower. Sometimes they live for 50 years and grow four feet tall. They bloom in late June or early July. A century ago, the ostentatious Pink and White Lady’s Slipper was a favorite adornment in rural church altars during the summer. The pink and white lady slipper can live longer than the average human life span – some species may grow be 100 years old! Due to the rarity of this wildflower, it is illegal to pick, uproot or unearth the flowers according to a state law enacted in 1925. (Minnesota state website: mn.gov/portal)
But with all good things there can be downsides which for our beautiful slippers are their finicky propagation and sensitivity to habitat change or being transplanted or picked. For example, the pink lady’s slipper has to rely on a tricky symbiotic relationship with a fungus - the fungus breaks open its seeds to pass nutrients onto them while the plant returns the favor through its roots later in life. Maybe that’s why there aren’t lady’s slippers everywhere, despite each plant producing 250,000 seeds! Another interesting fact is that the flowers of lady’s slipper orchids do not produce nectar. Pollinators appear to be attracted by the color and fragrance of the flowers
The unique flower shape easily allows pollinating bees in, but their exit is more difficult through narrow slits where flower pollen is scraped onto or off of the bee. As attractive as these rare fragile flowers are, don’t try digging them up and taking them home; plants dug from the wild usually don’t survive. So look, don’t touch or pick our prized beauties!
In fourteen US states, Showy Lady’s Slippers are listed as endangered, threatened, historical, exploitatively vulnerable or of special concern. In Vermont the species had not been seen since 1902. Astoundingly in 2009, more than 1000 plants were discovered by the staff of the Green Mountain National Forest.
Other names for Lady’s Slipper: slipper orchid, lady’s slipper, moccasin flower, camel's foot, squirrel foot, steeple cap, Venus' shoes, whippoorwill shoes, nerve root, American valerian
Medicinal Uses: as noted by Michael Wilson, an entomologist and botanist who is Research Director of Drylands Institute in Tucson, Arizona.
The root was formerly much used in North America both by indigenous and immigrant peoples for its sedative and antispasmodic properties and to counter insomnia and nervous tension. C. parvifolium was the most important medicinal lady’s slipper in North America.
(Rhizomes were “collected in the fall, or early in the spring, carefully dried and reduced to a powder and administered as a teaspoon of powder, diluted in sugar water, or any other convenient form” (Rafinesque 1828). Although, some whole-root preparations were aqueous, the pungent, unpleasant smelling roots were usually prepared as tinctures as the active principles are not water-soluble. The Cherokees, Iroquois, Menominee, MicMac, Penobscot, and other tribes used Cypripedium to treat a variety of disorders (Moerman 1986). Preparations have been taken internally in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, fever, headache, neuralgia, emotional tension, palpitations, tremors, irritable bowel syndrome, delirium, convulsions due to fever and to ease the pain of menstruation and childbirth (Grieve 1998, Sievers 1930). Herbalists generally consider Cypripedium preparations to be antispasmodic, anodyne, diaphoretic, hypnotic, nervine, sedative, stimulant and tonic.)
This story can be read in full along with other history stories in the ENDEAVOR News Magazine at www.annandalechamber.com/theendeavor.rhtml
Grieve, M. 1998. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees. Tiger Books International, PLC. 912 pp.
Moerman, D. 1986. Medicinal Plants of the Native Americans. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Technical Report, Number 19. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 534pp.
Rafinesque, C. S. 1828. Medical Flora; or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America. Aitkinson & Alexander, Philadelphia.
Wilson, Michael. http://www.pollinator.org/Resources/Cypripedium.draft.pdf
This story can be read in full along with other history stories in the ENDEAVOR News Magazine at www.annandalechamber.com/theendeavornewsmagazine.rhtml
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