Although there are many different species of orchids in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Lady Slipper, (Cypridium acaule), is by far the largest and most spectacular. It a leafless stem bearing a large drooping magenta to pale pink slipper or moccasin-like flower between two large stem-less, parallel-veined basal leaves. Also known as Moccasin Flower, this orchid blooms from May through June and has a rather interesting life style.
In order to survive and reproduce, Lady Slippers interact with a soil fungus of the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies like most other kinds of seeds. Therefore, the Lady Slipper seeds require threads of this fungus to break open their seeds to which the fungus then attaches itself. The fungus then passes on food and nutrients to the developing Lady Slipper embryo. Eventually, when the plant is older and producing its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid’s “roots.” This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as “symbiosis” and is typical of almost all orchid species.
However, if the soil ph gets above 4.5, there will be a proliferation of the symbiotic fungi that will eventually destroy the “roots” of the orchid. This is why these orchids grow so well in the acidic soils of the Pine Barrens, and the maintenance of the correct ph level plus the presence of the correct fungal species is the key to this orchid’s survival. Found as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as Georgia, they are not as fussy about soil types, light exposure or moisture, although some shade and adequate moisture in well-drained soil is necessary.
Lady Slippers take many years to go from seed to mature plants. Although Lady Slippers can live twenty years or more, the harvesting of wild Lady Slipper roots and seeds is not considered a sustainable practice and in our area it is illegal
Lady Slippers also require bees for pollination. Bees are lured into the flower pouch through the front slit, attracted by the flower’s sweet scent and bright color (magenta to pink-white). Once inside, the bees find no reward of nectar. In fact, they discover that they are trapped, with only one point of escape. Inside the pouch, there are hairs that lead to a pair of exit openings, one beneath each pollen mass. The bee must also pass under the stigma (female organ), so if it bears any pollen (sperm equivalent) from a visit to another flower, it will be deposited before picking up a fresh load of pollen on the way out.
Incidentally, the root-like tubers of the Lady Slipper were traditionally regarded as having medicinal value. They were used as a remedy for nervousness, tooth pain and muscle spasms. In the 1800s and 1900s, the Lady Slipper rhizomes plus those of other orchids, were widely used for its sedative properties. Fortunately, this is no longer necessary nor is it legal.
So when you come across the Lady Slipper Orchid during your spring ramblings, look at it with even more appreciation and understanding. It is truly an amazing plant!