Welcome to Kings Park Focus on Nature. The wonderful weather of late spring is hopefully encouraging everyone to get out on our local trails to enjoy the natural beauty that abounds in this season.
While I was out for a run in one of our town’s wooded parks I came across this unusual flower, the photographs of which accompany this article. This is the Pink Ladies Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium acaule). Typical of plants of the Orchid family, this flowering plant has a very exotic look. It is always gratifying to come across one of these extraordinary flowers in its natural habitat. These flowers bloom from late May through early July. Their preference is for acidic soil, and they find growing conditions suitable in pine forests as well as in the oak woodlands prevalent in our region.
The Pink Ladies Slipper Orchid flower is a vivid pink. It looks somewhat like a slipper or a moccasin. Thus, this plant is also known as a Moccasin Flower. The single bloom is at the end of a long green stem that rises from two flat green leaves at ground level. The Pink Ladies Slipper Orchid has a life cycle, which is rather curious.
To begin with there is the uniquely evolved structure of the flower itself. The orchid’s flower is a clever bit of nature’s architecture as regards the way it’s design entices pollination. Bumblebees are a key pollinator of Ladies Slippers. These bees are stout and powerful enough to force their way into the mostly closed off interior of the flower. They are lured there by a sweet smell like nectar. Unfortunately for the determined bee, however, there’s no nectar to be had. Once the insect has caught on to this false advertising, it seeks to escape the flower. There are two small openings that the bee is guided to, and it’s a tight squeeze to gain freedom. Pushing its way out, the bee deposits pollen gathered from previous visits to other flowers, while at the same time it picks up another load.
The seeds of orchid lack the nutrients that most plant seeds contain to give them a head start for growth. Instead, the orchids seeds require a boost from a certain fungus that exists in the soil of its habitat. The fungus breaks down the seed casing, initiating the seeds germination. Then the fungus acts as the roots for the seedling – transporting nutrients from the soil to the growing plant. Since this is an example of symbiosis, you may ask “what’s in it for the fungus”? As the orchid matures, the roles are reversed. The Ladies Slipper, now with roots and leaves, is able to spare resources in the form of nutrients for the fungus, which taps into its root system.
This symbiotic relationship is a long-term arrangement, as the lifespan of the Ladies Slipper Orchid can be more than twenty years. It is partly because of this elaborate life cycle that this wildflower does not make a suitable cultivated garden plant. It is in fact protected from being collected whole or in part.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists the status of Cypripedium acaule as “ Exploitably vulnerable native plants.” The DEC’s definition of this category is “ . . . exploitably vulnerable native plants (are) likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state if causal factors continue unchecked”.
Factors which would cause a decline of this species would include habitat destruction, encroachment of none native plants, illegal collection, and over browsing by burgeoning deer populations. The fact that these beautiful and interesting plants can only be viewed in the wild is one of the reasons they are so special and unique.
I hope you’ll find this article an inspiration to get outdoors and see if you can find one of these treasures to enjoy yourself. See you on the trails!