Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: The marvel of Lady’s Slippers

  • A pair of Lady’s Slippers. It is illegal in many states, including Massachusetts, to dig up Lady’s Slippers. Roman Olynyk via flickr

  • A batch of Lady’s Slippers. In appropriate conditions, Lady’s Slippers live for about 20 years. TODD FELLENBAUM VIA FLICKR

Published: 7/8/2021 2:57:27 PM

One of my favorite things about walking on the rail trail are the discussions that arise with other walkers about local wildlife sightings. My dog, Allie, keeps up too brisk a pace for me to scrutinize the tree canopy for birds, but birdwatchers alert me to hard-to-spot warblers as well as gaudier spring arrivals such as Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

Bobcats, mink, and even moose are also known to make an appearance on the trail. But aside from exotic fauna, the trail offers a wealth of interesting flora for those who take the time to look closely. A couple of years ago, a fellow walker brought my attention to a cluster of pink Lady’s Slippers in the woods several yards off the trail. The demure plants, about a foot tall, are easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for and even easier to miss if you’re being towed along by a power-walking canine.

Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule, is also called the moccasin flower, but I think it looks more like a swollen egg than a piece of footwear. It is a hardy perennial orchid, with a 2- to 3-inch pouch-like blossom on a foot-tall stem that has two oblong green leaves rising from the base. The species name acaule means stemless, referring to the plant’s leafless flowering stem. The plant typically grows in moist, piney woodlands like those that flank the rail trail, and blooms between May and July. Its flowers can last a month or more.

Like many wildflowers, the Lady’s Slipper is said to have medicinal properties. According to the website, its tuberous roots can be dried and ground into a powder to be used for insomnia and an antidepressant and sedative. Native Americans have used the plant’s roots to relieve muscle spasms and menstrual and labor pains.

The Lady’s Slipper is relatively uncommon; its very existence is one of nature’s true marvels. As if determined to guarantee its own scarcity, the plant stacks the odds against itself in matters of procreation. Unlike profligate wildflowers such as goldenrod and asters that offer up their nectar and pollen to a host of pollinating birds and bees, the Lady’s Slipper doesn’t make things easy for its would-be pollinators. It engages in a practice known as pollination by deceit. Its bright color and invitingly sweet scent attract bees to work their way through a small slit into its floral pouch. But once inside, the bee discovers it’s been duped: there is no nectar to reward its efforts. (Bees do consume pollen, but the pollen of the Lady’s Slipper is not accessible as food for bees.)

At this point, the hapless bee is guided by a series of tiny hairs inside the pouch to a narrow channel leading to a pair of exit openings, each of which is topped by a pollen mass. As the bee makes its way to the exit, it passes under the stigma — the plant’s female organ. If the bee has collected pollen from another flower, chances are it will deposit some of this pollen on the stigma. As the bee exits the pouch through one of the two exits, it picks up a new load of pollen on its way out. Having failed to collect any nectar from the seductive flower, the bee is likely to be grateful for its escape and skedaddle. If easier sources of nectar are available, the bee is likely to call it a day, so to speak.

Although some types of Lady’s Slippers are pollinated by smaller insects, most are pollinated by bees because bees are the optimal size to come into contact with the stigma and pollen mass. If a bee is too large, it may not be able to squeeze through the exit and will die in captivity.

If pollination does occur, a tiny fruit capsule will develop filled with thousands of miniscule seeds. The seeds of most plants contain the nutrients and food necessary for them to develop into plants. (Consider that small miracle next time you plant a flower or vegetable seed!) But for Lady’s Slippers and many other orchids, it’s not so simple. Left alone, Lady’s Slipper seeds are helpless. To stand a chance of growing into a mature plant, a seed must attach itself to a fungus of the genus Rhizoctonia. This soilborne fungus will, in effect, unlock the seed and provide it with the necessary nutrients to grow, a process that takes several years. When the plant is mature, it repays the favor, providing nutrients to the fungus through its roots. This is an example of symbiosis, meaning that two different organisms have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Is it possible to write about plants without mentioning the importance of pollinators? I doubt it. In appropriate conditions, Lady’s Slippers live for about 20 years. Given how difficult it is for Lady’s Slippers to reproduce, they need a robust population of bees to ensure their survival. Simply put, no bees, no Lady’s Slippers.

It is illegal in many states, including Massachusetts, to dig up Lady’s Slippers. It’s extremely difficult to successfully relocate these plants because of their finicky site preferences. So, if you’re lucky enough to have found a patch of Lady’s Slippers to admire, count your blessings. And leave the plants alone. Every spring, you’ll have one more miracle to look forward to.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.

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