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Slipper Orchids: Love and obsession

Wildflower people are both incredibly generous and seriously obsessive. This spring I’ve been the recipient of untold generosity. It’s common knowledge that everyone loves lady’s slippers and that people can go a little crazy over them. Most people won’t share the location of lady’s slippers with even blood relatives.

We have five species of slipper orchids in Virginia. The pink one is the most widespread and the most common. The small white is only found in one area. There are two yellow species: one found in just one county and one with a relatively wide distribution, but not common. And then there is the showy lady’s slipper, also called the queen of the forest. It’s the Holy Grail of lady’s slippers in Virginia – limited to a very few locations and in danger of disappearing.

I was in Farmville in mid-May, generally past the peak of pink lady’s slipper season. I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t seen in ages, and she immediately offered to show me a place that had an unimaginable number of these beauties. I hear this a lot, so I figured that there might be 15 to 20 plants, but, wow! There were pink lady’s slippers for as far as I could see. It was a stunning sight and a very generous gift.

Not long afterward, someone else offered to take me to see some yellow lady’s slippers, a plant that I spent a good deal of last spring trying to find. His only stipulation was that I couldn’t reveal the location to anyone. They’re taller than the pink ones and not as common, especially in our area. We walked for about a mile along a trail and then veered off into the woods. And there in a very hilly, densely wooded area were the elusive yellow lady’s slippers, as well as showy orchids. Everywhere. The yellow lady’s slippers are taller than the pink ones and have multiple stems per plant. The long sepals are twisted, and the inside of the pouch often has red dots. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

And then just a week ago, someone posted photos of the showy lady’s slipper on my Facebook wildflower community page. I was shocked because this lady’s slipper isn’t common at all. The blooms have white sepals and petals and pink pouches. Stems usually have three to six large leaves. This slipper orchid grows slowly but can live for over 50 years. A mature, well-established plant might have nearly 100 blooms. I didn’t see these in person, but just seeing photos taken by someone that I know was a very generous treat. This is a plant that I don’t really ever expect to find in the woods.

All of these finds have presented opportunities to educate people. The slipper orchid is one of those plants that can be loved to death. The best advice for all of us is to tread gently around these plants. Don’t disturb them, and don’t try to relocate them because they almost never survive. Their requirements are just too specialized.

CYNTHIA WOOD can be reached at cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.