One Summer in a Lady’s Slipper’s Life

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by Pat Jaquith

Cypripedium montanum (Mountain Lady’s Slipper)

The Mountain Lady’s Slipper, aka White Lady’s Slipper, is a striking sight, whether as a single stalk like this one or a in big clump. Although their very existence requires an amazing amount of chance and even the support of a fungal partner, they find a niche that works for them in our area. I visited this solitary plant at least once every month from June to October, 2022. Read on to watch its progress.

I have a Chipping Sparrow to thank for finding this plant in June, 2019. I was looking for some little bird that was trying to lure me away from its nest when I looked down to see what I was going to trip over and spotted this very orchid in the grass and shrubs. It was about 6″ tall, with two elliptical leaves with linear veins – just a baby. It needed to grow and store more nutrients before it would be ready to blossom. In 2020 when I stopped by to admire it, it had one very stunted little blossom just opening; on a subsequent visit I found that blossom had fallen off and its dry remains had fallen into a spider’s web attached to the lowest leaf. The following year, it produced two healthy-looking flowers. A second plant seemed to be just emerging from the ground nearby. I know of no other Mountain Lady’s Slipper closer than .5 mile.

6.08.22 Cypripedium montanum (Mountain Lady’s Slipper)
6.08.22 View from the back of one flower. Those pink lines are on the inside of the slipper.
7.26.22 One of the flowers forming a capsule indicates it was pollinated
8.08.22 Capsule getting ridges; still full-looking; dry flower parts still attached. Stem, leaves still fresh-looking
9.19.22 Whole plant dry, shades of brown. Upper two blossoms still in closed-capsule stage. Bottom flower never formed capsule, but some dry material still attached.
10.07.22 Second (lower) capsule view from east side of plant
10.07.22 Second (lower) capsule view from west side of plant: capsule split open along a ridge; appears empty

This Mountain Lady’s Slipper has produced two capsules of seeds. In his book Engtagled Life , Merlin Sheldrake writes, “Dust seeds are the smallest plant seeds in the world.” Orchid seeds are “naked”, meaning there is no food to provide energy for germination. Orchids have their own mycorrhizal network; hyphae enter the dust seed and deliver nutrients that allow the seed to start to grow. The orchid is parasitic on the fungus, that is, it depends on the fungus to feed it for several years. When the plant starts to photosynthesize, it gives nutrients to the fungus, thus making their relationship symbiotic. Lady’s Slippers may take 10 years to reach the blossoming stage of their growth.

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Jeanine Buettner
Jeanine Buettner
1 year ago

Thank you Pat for this article. I love Lady Slippers. We have one at the end of our driveway that has been there for about 20 years. It has grown into a large clump. Every time I see the county weed sprayer coming down the road I run out and put a bucket over it. Last year the deer started nibbling on it so I fenced it. The deer had never bothered it before. When underground wiring was installed along the road, I went out and protected it from the construction equipment. I think those guys thought I was crazy. It came through it just fine. I will keep protecting it as long as I can.