Lady’s slipper orchid is a shy and quiet plant. It survives best in undisturbed natural habitats (Gladstar, 2000). The plant was used medicinally for centuries, and it was so effective that herbalist over-used it. They did not pay attention to its delicate nature and harvested it almost to the point of extinction.
It is hard to find this orchid in its natural habitat, and it is also hard to cultivate it because it requires specific conditions to reproduce itself.
The story of the lady’s slipper orchid provides a good example of the grave consequences of taking our natural environment for granted, and not following sustainable practices. I will tell you more about this delicate plant, and why you should care.
Lady’s Slipper Orchid’s Endangerment
Scientifically it is known as Cypripedium spp. It is a wildflower of the Orchid or Orchidaceae family, and its 50 species can be found in temperate and subtropical climates in America, Europe, and Asia (Guan, Zhang, Guan, Li, & Hu, 2011).
Medicinally, lady’s slipper orchid was used as a mild stimulant, antispasmodic, sedative, anti-depressant, and stress and tension reducer, and as remedy for female reproductive system ailments and to treat nervous disorders such as headaches and epilepsy (Gladstar, 2000; Hoffman, 2003; Ulbricht, 2010).
It is safe, non-toxic, and has little to no side effects, which made it a favorite amongst early doctors and herbalists. Its safety meant it could be used on people of all ages, including children. It could also be administered in large doses (Gladstar, 2000; Ulbricht, 2010).
Due to its extensive benefits, lady’s slipper orchid was over-harvested, slowly endangering the population even before the end of the 19th century (Hoffman, 2003). Gladstar (2000) recounted that as late as 1972, although Cypripedium spp. was already an endangered species, it continued to be used in herbal medicine.
It wasn’t until the mid to late 1990’s that United Plant Savers added the herb to its list of protected and endangered American medicinal plants (Hoffman, 2003). Only then did herbal formulas cease to contain the herb. United Plant Savers (2012) doesn’t allow for wild harvesting, and states the herb can only be used from cultivated sources. Other countries, such as Japan, prevent the plant from being collected, transferred, or exported (Sugiura, Fujie, Inoue, & Kitamura, 2001).
Challenges in Cultivating Lady’s Slipper Orchid
Many herbalists have tried transplanting the plant, but because of the carefully crafted conditions required for its growth, lady’s slipper orchid has not survived. Miller (2000) stated that when it was transplanted “it enact(ed) a slow, torturous death scene, shrinking, year by year, into oblivion.”
To blame are many conditions, including its pollination process, its symbiotic relationship with a root fungus, and its requirement for acidic soil.
The bumblebee is lady slipper’s natural pollinator. The flower has a narrow entrance, which makes it difficult for bees to enter into the sac that contain the nectar, pollen, and stigma, which are key to pollination (Gladstar, 2000). In fact, only four species of bumblebees, and that too only its queen bees, are able to pick up the necessary pollen for the plant’s propagation (Sugiura et al., 2001). To add further difficulty, pollination needs to happen within the 15 to 21-day average flowering period (Edens-Meier et al., 2010).
What is more, some lady’s slipper orchids are food-deceptive, meaning that the flower produces limited to negligible amounts of nectar, making it less enticing for bees to make the effort to pollinate it. Instead, in order to attract bees to enter, the flower is visually attractive and produces pleasant aromas (Ren, Li, Bernhardt, & Wang, 2011).
2. Symbiotic Relationship With Root Fungus
Gladstar (2000) states that even if lady slipper’s orchid is successfully pollinated, the resulting seed does not contain its own endosperm, or nourishment necessary to grow from a seed into a plant, and depends on an external source of nourishment. It establishes a symbiotic relationship with one of six soil fungi known as orchid mycorrhizae.
The seed remains dormant until one of the specific mycorrhiza invades it, and it can lay dormant for years waiting to be digested by the fungus and finally gain the nourishment it needs to grow.
Even after the seed begins the symbiotic relationship with the fungus, it remains underground, developing with the fungus, for a two-year period, and breaks ground only on its third year (Gladstar, 2000).
This means that in order to cultivate the flower, it is important not only to use the specific mycorrizhal fungi, but also that the right one be used at the right stage of development of both the fungus and the plant.
3. Acidic Soil
All species of Cypripedium spp. grow best in acidic soil. But, the exact conditions vary. For instance, Cypripedium acaule does best in acidic soil of pH 4.0 to 5.0 that is supported by pine needles or leaf mold. Cypripedium calceolus and Cypripedium pubescens require mildly acidic soil of pH 6.0 to 7.0 ranging from slightly moist to bog-like, and thrive in partial shade and deciduous woods. Cypripedium reginae grow in very moist soil of pH 6.0 to 7.0, ranging from boggy to swampy, and prefer light shade and calcareous bogs (Gladstar, 2000).
Cyprepedium spp.’s exacting growing conditions did not happen by chance. Rather, they were the result of evolution of the plant adapting to its natural environment (Guan et al., 2011). This elaborate process of natural selection resulted in the development of traits and characteristics that were specific to lady’s slipper orchids, as well as in the development of its carefully crafted relationships with pollinators, fungi, and soil.
In order to grow Cypripedium spp. sustainably, it is necessary to recreate the exacting conditions required by the plant. Unfortunately, most of the studies that tried to emulate these conditions were unsuccessful (Shimura et al., 2009; Yuan, Yang, Li, Hu, & Huang, 2010).
But, one study confirms that hand pollination of Cypripedium is possible, and that it is a more successful method than pollination by bees because it does not rely on a chance encounter (Edens-Meier et al., 2010).
Even so, hand pollination still needs to happen within the set flowering period, the specific mycorrizhal fungi still need to be in the ground to ensure plant development, and the plant still needs to grow in its specific acidic soil conditions.
Human interaction makes it even more difficult to ensure the successful growth of the plant. Something as simple as someone walking by a lady’s slipper orchid plant and accidentally knocking a flower off the plant, or someone purposefully picking the flower, could set off the very stable and meticulous balance required for the plant’s propagation (Sugiura et al., 2001).
There are too many variables that come into play to ensure that the plant can be grown sustainably. Sustainable growth of lady’s slipper orchid requires isolation and careful care.
I realize we may not be able to do much about this particular plant. But, the story of the lady’s slipper orchid does call attention to the need we have to care for our resources in a sustainable manner.
We can care for nature and our environment by being more mindful and behaving more consciously. Something as simple as buying organic and biodynamic foods (see what I’ve written about Biodynamic Farming here and here) can make a difference. Biodynamic farming, in particular, supports sustainable environments and encourages biodiversity, which includes increasing populations of native pollinators, such as bees (Damery, 2011).
We rely on our environment for our nourishment and for our health. Our food source, our vitality, and our remedies come from nature. Only by taking care of nature can we keep ourselves and our planet healthy, and avoid repeating the story of lady’s slipper orchid.
Damery, P. (2011). The enclosed garden: Underlying principles of jungian analysis and biodynamic agriculture. Jung Journal, 5(2), 102-116. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jung.2011.5.2.102
Edens-Meier, R. M., Vance, N., Luo, Y., Peng, L., Westhus, E., & Bernhardt, P. (2010). Pollen-pistil interactions in North American and Chinese Cypripedium L. (Orchidadeae). International Journal of Plant Science, 171(4), 370-381. doi:10.1086/651225
Gladstar, R. (2000). Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs. Gladstar, R., & Hirsch, P. (Eds.). Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Guan, Z., Zhang, S., Guan, K., Li, S., & Hu, H. (2011). Leaf anatomical structures of Paphiopedilum and Cypripedium and their adaptive significance. Journal of Plant Research, 124(2), 289-298. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10265-010-0372-z
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Miller, C. B. (2000). Lady's Slippers for Everyone. Horticulture, Gardening at its Best, 97(2), 20. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezp-02.lirn.net/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA60045057&v=2.1&u=lirn12711&it=r&p=GPS&sw=w&asid=dda97dd17e5fa7806ca6a6c588fa37e9
Ren, Z., Li, D., Bernhardt, B., & Wang, H. (2011). Flowers of Cypripedium fargesii (Orchidaceae) fool flat-footed flies (Platypezidae) by faking fungus-infected foliage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 108(18), 7478-7480. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1103384108
Sugiura, N., Fujie, T., Inoue, K., & Kitamura, K. (2001). Flowering phenology, pollination, and fruit set of Cypripedium macranthos var. rebunense, a threatened lady's slipper (Orchidaceae). Journal of Plant Research, 114(2), 171-178. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/PL00013980
Shimura, H., Sadamoto, M., Matsuura, M., Kawahara, T., Naito, S., & Koda, Y. (2009). Characterization of mycorrhizal fungi isolated from the threatened cypripedium macranthos in a northern island of Japan: two phylogenetically distinct fungi associated with the orchid. Mycorrhiza, 19(8), 525-534. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00572-009-0251-4
Yuan, L., Yang, Z. L., Li, S., Hu, H., & Huang, J. (2010). Mycorrhizal specificity, preference, and plasticity of six slipper orchids from South Western China. Mycorrhiza, 20(8), 559-568. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00572-010-0307-5
Ulbricht, C. E. (2010). Natural Standard: Herb & Supplement Guide- An Evidence-Based Reference. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
United Plant Savers. (2012). Lady Slipper Orchid. United Plant Savers. Retrieved on March 12, 2018 from http://www.unitedplantsavers.org/lady-s-slipper-orchid-cypripedium-spp