Saturday 27 February 2016

Wild Orchids in Canada's North

Pink Lady's Slipper
We all have our favourite flowers - roses for the lovers, tulips for your Easter table, daffodils to aid cancer research.  While I love them all for very different reasons, I find myself fascinated by orchids.  The  grocery store varieties have blooms that appear on elongated stems and last for months.

Thought of as warm-climate plants, did you know that wild orchids grow in northern Ontario?  Cypripedium acaule is commonly known as the "Stemless Lady's Slipper, Pink Lady's Slipper, Pink Moccasin Flower" or just "Moccasin Flower".  It is part of the Orchidaceae family with the Cypripedium genus containing about 30-50 species widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere.

Cypripedium acule is the Provincial flower of Prince Edward Island. Although it is a native flower, it is considered uncommon and endangered in many US states.  If the blossom is picked, the plant will not regenerate.  Do not attempt to transplant this orchid if you find one, for it will NOT survive.  Because of its attractiveness, this orchid is disappearing in the wild.

Found on wet, moist and dry soils with some shade, this species can be found in coniferous and mixed forests, swamps and bogs.  This species bears a single flower on a stem that is about 15 - 45 cm tall.  It has two large leaves 10 - 25 cm long at the base of the stem.  Plants that are not blooming have no stem which is where the name "Acaule" comes from meaning "without stem"Flower blooms range from pale pink to light or dark purple.  There are also white forms of the plant and the Yellow Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium calceolus.

Species known as "deceptive orchid".
If you have a close look at the flower, there is a pouch or lip that is folded in on itself.  This forms a narrow channel-like opening.  The inner surface of the pouch has many fine hairs.  This species of plant is known as a "deceptive orchid" that is pollinated by bees.  A bee is attracted by the flower's colour and sweet scent.  It pushes through an inward-leading slit in the front of the flower and gets trapped inside a pouch.  The agitated and trapped insect now looks for a way out and must crawl out through a small hole in the back of the pouch called the "labellum".  In order to do so, the bee must  crawl under a flattened structure which are the female reproductive parts (stigma).  Pollen the bee was carrying before rubs off and pollination is accomplished.  As the bee leaves, it picks up a new packet of pollen as it squeezes out of the flower.  If you notice a hole in a flower bloom, an upset bee may have chewed its way out.

Since the pollen sticks to the back of the bee where it cannot access it, bees learn that there is no nectar or pollen reward and do not come to visit the flower again.  Because this flower has such an elaborate method of pollination, it is thought that less than 5% of flowers are pollinated each year.  In fact, it may take up to 10 years for the plant to germinate!  If you see one in the wild, please do not pick the flower!

Did you know...

that "cypripedium" from the Greek means "Aphrodite's shoe" or "Venus' shoe" and refers to the shape of the lip of this flower?

If you need images of this lovely wild flower, please visit where you may download specimens photographed blooming at Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Ontario, in early May.