showy ladyslippershowy ladyslipper

July 7, 2020

When you think of an orchid, you may picture a purple cattleya such as is commonly used as a gift corsage.  This tropical flower comes from Costa Rica south to Argentina and can also be grown as a potted plant in Wisconsin. 

What is not often understood is that there are twenty to thirty thousand different species of orchids growing on every continent except Antarctica and they come in almost every color, shape, and size.  The high volume of orchid varieties is due to the fact that in highly competitive plant environments like tropical areas, orchids are competing with numerous other plants for space and to attract pollinators.  Even in Wisconsin, there are 40 species of native orchids growing in our wilds, although many are rare or becoming so because of loss of their habitat.

An orchid is widely considered to be the most highly evolved of all flowering plants because it contains several unique reproductive characteristics.  All orchids have both the male and female reproductive structures fused into a single structure commonly called a "column".  Most also share a highly modified petal called a lip, and a highly efficient system of insuring that self pollination never takes place. 

The type of orchid that grows in a particular spot depends upon the soil moisture, pH content, sunlight and many other soil properties. Interestingly, orchids have a symbiotic relationship (where two species rely on one another) with various types of fungi.  Actually, orchids and fungi have a mutualistic type of symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit from the relationship. Each species of Wisconsin orchid can have its own symbiotic species of fungi, so there could be up to 40 different fungi species.

The orchids rely on the fungi for food and nutrients when they do not receive enough sunlight to produce photosynthesis for their small seeds.  Besides lack of proper fungus, habitat disturbance caused by humans or animals as a result of construction, destructive erosion, burning, draining, etc. is also devastating to their existence, although some of these disturbances can be positive. When deer and other wild animals come across a field, they can just about clear it of excess vegetation. This allow orchids to thrive in an area where they could not normally compete, although it is also known that deer like to eat orchids as they eat just about every native plant in the state.

Stantec botanist Melissa Curran recently gave a presentation at Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve at Two Rivers about an orchid restoration project going on there to bring up the orchid numbers in Wisconsin. Volunteers and workers have been reintroducing 25 orchid species, although this is a complicated project as many orchids are very particular and their seeds are extremely small.

Two of the species they hope to restore include the grass pink orchid, and the showy lady’s slipper.  The grass pink is a formerly abundant plant with a single leaf near the base of a two foot tall stalk. This terminates in a zig-zag spike of a dozen or so one-to-two-inch pink to deep rosy pink blossoms.  The root system consists of a corm with fibrous roots below.  The blooming period usually occurs from early to late summer, lasting about 3-4 weeks and the flowers bloom sequentially from the bottom to the top of the floral spike.  Afterwards, fertile flowers are replaced by seed capsules that are about " long that eventually break open to release numerous tiny seeds, which are distributed by the wind. The structure of the flower for this orchid is highly unusual because its lip is located at the top rather than the bottom, causing the flower to appear upside-down (even though it is actually right-side up).

Another favorite species is the showy lady’s slipper that grows in wetlands such as fens, wooded swamps, and riverbanks. We have a particular affection for this beauty as we have managed to grow several purchased plants in our small wild garden.   It thrives in neutral to basic soils but can be found in slightly acidic conditions. The plants often form in clumps by branching of the underground rhizomes with roots typically within a few inches of the top of the soil. It prefers very loose soils and when growing in fens it will most often be found in mossy hummocks.  It flowers in early to midsummer, usually with 1 to 2 flowers per stalk.

This ladyslipper depends on insects for pollination although the structure of the flower creates a tight space through which insects have to squeeze. A pollinating insect first passes by the stigma, and upon exiting the trap rubs against the anther. Pollination typically occurs in June and the seed pod or fruit is ripe by September and spreads its seeds by October. Although a single seed pod can produce over 50,000 seeds, low germination and a seed-to-flowering term of about 8 years indicate that sexual reproduction is inefficient and division of the from rhizomes is the common means.  This summer, make it a challenge to discover wild orchids in our woodlands and be amazed at what you may find.

NOTICE:  A special announcement from Timbergreen Farm:  Spring Green Timber Growers Store Outdoor Retirement Sale: slabwood tables, chef' boards, plaques, wooden gifts: Saturdays July 11, 18, and 25:  9am - 4pm or by appointment:      608 588 7342