Friday, May 29, 2015

May 2015 Native Plant of the Month - Pink Ladies Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

As a young girl, I grew up on the edge of the woods. Each summer when school let out I set about the woods behind our yard exploring all there was to see. As an avid gardener even then, there were woodland flowers I grew to love and was fascinated with. One of these was the Pink Lady's Slipper,Cypripedium acaule. It is also known as Moccasin Flower. There was even one growing in our yard for a few years before it disappeared. I also had one at the mobile home for a while and on the grounds of the park there was a wooded area with a nice population along a trail. Now on my new property I have counted 30 so far this year. Some are solitary, others are in larger populations of different ages. The flowering ones are all beautiful this year and I feel blessed they have made there home here. So I have chosen this plant to talk about this month as its mere existence is a perfect example of nature in harmony as it relies on other organisms for survival.

  Sadly I have heard many tales about folks who dug them up from the woods, but the plants did not survive. It is nearly impossible to transplant. I have learned it is better enjoyed where it chooses to show up. The conditions required for it to grow are quite precise. I do not sell or propagate this plant. But I have learned how to keep them if they are already there.  The key to that is to not rake leaves or needles from the area in which they are growing.

The reason for this is because unlike most seeds, orchid seeds do not contain food supplies to nourish the plant until true leaves are formed. So the plant relies on a soil fungus to obtain food. The threads of the fungus break open the seed and attach to it, passing on food and nutrients to the plant. Once the plant is mature enough to produce its own food, the fungus will obtain its nutrients from the roots of the plant. Thus there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.  This fungus, of the Rhizoctonia genus, is found in leaf litter, so not raking the area where the plants are growing is beneficial to both plant and fungus.

 Another interesting this about this plant is that it requires bees for pollination. The plant gives off a scent pleasant to lure bees.The flower has a slit in the very front where only bees strong enough to enter may do so. Once inside, they slit closes  and the bee is trapped. In order to escape, it must move forward to the only exit at the top of the flower. Along the way there are hairs that guide the bee and lead it to the opening, but not until it passes under the stigmas, picking up pollen on its body. When it enters a new flower, that pollen makes contact with stigmas in the next plant and pollination has occurred. At that point, the bee is near the exit and makes its escape. Sounds like something from a movie, right? Truly fascinating.

Lady's Slipper grows 6 to 15 inches tall.The plant consists of only two basal opposite leaves. They are hairy with pronounced veins. The flower stalk is separate with no leaves. At the top is a single flower with a pink pouch that resemble a moccasin or slipper. The pouch contains the slit and may have a darker pink venation which helps guide the bee to the opening. At the top of the flower is another opening from which the bee will exit.

It takes many years for a new plant to flower. In its early years it may be just a leaf or two.  However the plant can live up to 20 years in the wild. So if you are out for a walk in the woods in May or early June, be sure to keep an eye out for this little beauty. If you spot one, it just may become a new friend to go and visit each year.

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