Recently I made the annual trip to see what may be my favorite plant – the Kentucky Lady Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense). This year I was joined by my friends John Williams, Skip Pudney, and Terry Hibbitts, who were anxious for the chance to see and photograph the slippers.
The Kentucky Lady’s Slipper finds refuge deep in the cool, moist ravines of the Pineywoods. Here the sunlight barely penetrates the canopy, and in April, if the conditions are just right, its curled petals and broad sepals will unfurl, revealing the cream yellow slipper to the world.
Today this spectacular orchid is rare throughout its range, hanging on as scattered populations from Virginia to East Texas. It occurs in the dwindling southern hardwood forests that remain as relicts from the last ice age. Here tends to be found adjacent to small, often springfed streams on small benches or the lower terraces of steep slopes.
As the glaciers began their retreat rich hardwood forests with beech, maple, hickory, and oak were likely the dominant cover type in the southern United States. As the glaciers receded and the climate warmed and dried, dominant species like American beech were pushed to these ravines where they remain as relicts – reminders of the forests that once were. They are accompanied by a suite of other species typical of northern and Appalachian hardwood forests. The Kentucky lady’s slipper is perhaps the most charismatic example of relictual flora in East Texas.
Cypripedium kentuckiense is huge by orchid standards. The plants may reach close to a meter tall, and the slipper, which is really a modified petal may be the size of a chicken egg. This orchid is a bit of a trickster, as it lures bees, fully expecting a sweet nectar reward, into the lip. The bees find no reward inside though, as the orchid does not produce the sugary substance that the pollinators depend on. It is unlikely that many bees will make the mistake of returning to a lady slipper bloom after this initial disappointment. Therefore it is believed that the orchids are pollinated primarily by inexperienced individuals.
The Kentucky Lady’s Slipper truly is one of the most striking inhabitants of the Pineywoods, and for my money one of the most beautiful plants in the country. Populations continue to decline, however, as these sensitive species succumb to a myriad of pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, increasing isolation of populations which creates a barrier for gene flow, and more. Fortunately many of the remaining Cypripedium kentuckiense populations in East Texas are protected, at least for the moment. So at least for now, these botanical treasures will continue to brighten our rich mesic slopes each spring.