Near the bottom of the woods garden, nestled by a mossy log and keeping company with a companion white trillium, grows a hitchhiker transplant from the Northern woods.
A lusty sort of lady, she carries her golden shoe as she dances in the spring breeze. Inadvertently dug with trilliums given to me by a friend from her private property as a single, pleated green leaf and nearly nonexistent roots, it was planted almost as an afterthought, with little hope of its survival but an inkling in the back of my mind of what it might be — not just Solomon’s seal, which it resembled.
To my surprise, not only did it survive the summer, it reappeared the following spring, with a couple more leaves and definitely looking at home in our Chaotic Ozark woods. I watched for it again this year as the white trilliums appeared but nothing was promised, and I resigned myself to having lost it over the winter. And then, there she suddenly was — a yellow lady’s slipper orchid, fat, healthy, growing like a weed and offering a slender brown bud to the world. It took four days for it to open, revealing a teasing glimpse of yellow. I practically sat on it like a broody hen waiting for her chick to hatch, checking every few hours in bated anticipation until the honey-scented, bright yellow, slipper-shaped pouch was born.
Yellow lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium parviflorum), one of the most common varieties of North America’s native orchids, are found mostly in boreal forests with hemlocks, oaks, birches and pines, often in boggy or sometimes dry, rich, woodsy, acid soil at the edges of the forest in filtered sun. Growing from Southern Canada to Georgia into the upper Midwest and as far west as the Rockies, lady’s slippers are native to southeastern Missouri but seldom seen in our Ozark region.
Unfortunately, they are seldom seen in the wild at all anymore. Along with other lady’s slipper species, they have been declared rare and endangered — victims of heedless, irresponsible harvesting by plant collectors to sell, gardeners hoping to grow these beautiful ladies at home and the “progress” of land development destroying habitat. In many states, it is illegal to pick or dig a lady’s slipper orchid except from private land with landowner permission, and they mean it, imposing a hefty fine for violations. Like most orchids, yellow lady’s slippers have no nectar. Small bees in search of pollen are led into the flower’s pouch by “advertising” in the form of red arrow markings on the lip pointing the way to the female part of the flower where pollen grains gathered from other flowers are rubbed off and upon exiting the flower, more is gathered from the male part of the bloom, which is rubbed off in the next flower. The bees never get to keep the pollen for their own use, duped by fake news and false advertising.
If the plant is successfully fertilized, it produces a pod filled with thousands of tiny dust-like seeds, only a few of which actually germinate. It may be seven to 10 years before a plant is mature enough to flower. Like other native orchids, sometimes they disappear for a year or two and suddenly return bigger than ever. It’s no wonder they are rare.
Reputedly difficult to transplant, cypripediums have a symbiotic relationship with a critically important mycorrhizal soil fungus that the orchid must have to obtain nutrients it needs to survive. Without getting enough of the native soil in which they were growing, they soon wither and die after transplanting. I must have gotten really lucky in that respect.
I had wanted to buy one from a wildflower nursery and almost did, if one had been available. I have since found two glorious pages of them in the Plant Delights catalog; including hybrids and European varieties, all nursery grown and propagated but there is that hefty price tag again.
More common in Missouri are ladies tresses (spiranthes), small, late-summer blooming meadow orchids with tiny flowers arranged on the stem in a spiral. Six species occur in Missouri, one of which is a glade flower; others prefer boggy, wet areas. Sometimes appearing in our lawn, they are endangered by my lawnmower, but I try to look for them before I pull that cord. I was not so fortunate planting one purchased from a wildflower nursery a few years ago; it absconded almost immediately and has not been seen since.
Also making a rare appearance are parasitic coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata). Tiny and ruby red with no chlorophyll, it also lives on mycorrhizal fungi. It doesn’t make a regular showing, but every few years when conditions are right, I’m surprised by it in the moss lawn, blooming in June. The tiny flowers have to be viewed close-up on hands and knees to appreciate its red-spotted white petals. It is one that cannot be transplanted under any circumstances. Coralroot has been used historically by Native Americans as a treatment for colds and skin irritations.
Much easier to grow successfully and way more affordable (about the same as a Starbucks caramel macchiato) are Bletilla striata, hardy terrestrial orchids from East Asia. About a foot tall with small, pink/mauve cattleya type flowers, they have spread nicely under our big white dogwood for many years, despite their marginal zone 7b hardiness. I wait to uncover them until May as late frosts often burn leaves, leaving them looking sad and tattered all summer. Hybridized extensively in pink, white and yellow with monster sizes to three feet tall, bletillas are nearly extinct in their native region from the same kind fate suffered by our wild cypripediums, and in future will likely only be found in cultivated gardens. Fortunately, they are readily available at many garden centers.
In the meantime, I’m looking at that Plant Delights catalog, weighing the cost of a Mother’s Day dinner against the price of a showy pink cypripedium. I think I’ll order an orchid instead of a steak. It’s not too late, and healthier besides.
Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener, Missouri master gardener and winner of The Missouri Writers Guild 2018 first place award for Best Newspaper Column. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at email@example.com and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.