Last year, RailGuy made an exciting discovery. While walking the dog in our forest, he noticed a patch of orchids, pink lady-slippers (Cypripedium acaule). Our woodland is not too floriferous generally, so it was a pretty cool find.
Worldwide, there are about 50 Cypripedium species, of which 5 are commonly found in northeastern United States and Canada. Of these, C. acaule is one of the most common, along with the yellow lady-slipper (C. parviflorum). It differs from other such orchids in a number of ways. While most lady-slippers prefer moist or boggy ground, C. acaule will grow in dry, acidic soil, especially under pine or hemlock trees. Other Cypripediums flower on leaf-bearing stems, while C acaule produces two broad leaves at ground level and a leafless flower stalk.
The flower is formed from three petals. One of the petals is greatly modified to form the pouch, or labellum, while the other two petals are narrow and twisted, one on each side of the labellum. The resemblance to slippers is easier to see in the yellow lady-slipper, which has a rounded opening at the top of the labellum. Pink lady-slippers have a different arrangement. Insects, usually bumblebees, must push through a slit that runs down the front of the labellum.
The flowers have long been compared to shoes, even across cultures. The genus name, Cypripedium comes from the Greek cypris (the island of Cyprus) and pedilon, meaning shoe. The lady-slipper is named for Aphrodite, who is said to have sprung from the sea near Cyprus. Cypripedium is thus “the shoe of the Cyprian’.
An Ojibway legend is the source of another common name, moccasin flower. The tale tells of a young maiden who ran a long distance to obtain medicine to save her people. As her moccasins were shredded, her torn feet left droplets of blood on the ground. Each droplet gave rise to a lady-slipper orchid.
Woodland wildflowers across the Northeast are sliding into decline. One factor is an over-browsing deer population that has arisen since humans eliminated most of their predators. Another factor is the introduction of non-native earthworms, spread, for example, by fishermen discarding leftover bait worms. The worms disrupt the natural leaf mulch blanketing the forest and protecting flowers.