Lady Slipper Orchids

Learn about the wildflower that’s also an orchid—lady slipper.
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Colorful Bloom of the Slipper Orchid

Colorful Bloom of the Slipper Orchid

Lady slipper orchids are perennials that thrive in shaded woodlands.

Photo by: DK - Grow Plants in Pots © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - Grow Plants in Pots , 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Lady slipper orchids are perennials that thrive in shaded woodlands.

Stumble upon a patch of wild lady slipper orchids, and the feeling is pure delight. The delicate, yet intricate beauty of the native wildflower slipper orchids is awe-inspiring. Of all the perennial types of orchids, the lady slipper orchid is probably the most well-known and popular—and it also likely unfurls the showiest blossom.  

Many countries with strong seasons have native lady slipper orchids. There are forty-eight species total worldwide. The greatest number occurs in the temperate regions of East Asia. In the United States, eleven lady slipper orchid species are native, and they occur in every state but Nevada, Hawaii and Florida. In Minnesota, the native showy lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium reginae) is the state flower.  

Lady slipper orchids grow in one of two ways. They may have just a pair of basal leaves, or the native plant may produce a leafy stalk that grows up to 24 inches tall. The lady slipper blossom appears on a stem just above the leaves. The flower has a distinct form. Three long, twisted petals in dark hues stand above and behind an enlarged pouch—the slipper. The pouch portion of the bloom can be tiny, roughly one inch long, or as large as a standard chicken egg.  

In the garden, lady slipper orchids need a spot in a shaded woodland. Sunlight should be filtered and dappled, and soil should contain much humus and organic matter.  Some lady slipper orchids need moist alkaline soil to grow; others crave dry, acidic, sandy soils. Do your homework to ensure you provide the right growing conditions for your orchid.  

Lady slipper orchid roots grow atop soil, and the natural decomposition processes of the forest cover those roots with compost. In your own garden, try planting lady slipper orchids bareroot. Lay the roots across the soil surface, followed by a light layer of compost and mulch. Keep this mixture moist until plants are clearly established and growing.  

As a rule, lady slipper orchids aren’t easy to grow. Among the North American slipper orchids, the easiest ones to grow are the Kentucky lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium kentuckiense) and a Minnesota native, the greater yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens).  

When purchasing lady slipper orchids, make sure you’re not buying plants that have been harvested from the wild. You should be able to tell by the price. Lady slipper orchids raised from seed can take from six to eight years to flower and usually cost at least $35. Plants sold for less—that are being marketed as having achieved flowering size—are probably wild harvested.  

The botanical name of the lady slipper orchid—cypripedium—refers to the island of Cyprus (“cypri”), which was the mythological birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite. “Pedium” refers to shoe or slipper. In some circles, lady slipper orchids are referred to as Aphrodite’s slipper.

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