The Trouble with Being Beautiful ….

Although I’m always advocating the value of finding the beauty in the everyday, I’m still swayed by those things that are unarguably beautiful. Lady Slippers are one of those things and Showy Lady Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) top the list.

Showy’s come by their latin name honestly. They truly are the queen of the lady slippers. First-off, they’re huge, reaching up from their mossy bed by almost 2 feet. Each plant is crowned with up to three enormous white and pink blossoms that look alternately like a woman’s shoe or a blushing little dutch girl in her winged bonnet, depending on the angle you’re looking at them.

Regardless of the angle, they are truly impressive plants. They’re also usually pretty rare, being restricted to relatively boggy areas, pushing up amongst the sphagnum moss and horsetails in their quest for pollination.

Because that’s really what all the fuss is about, attracting insects to spread their genetic calling card around. This blushing beauty, however, seems to be bit of a tease, offering little or no nectar as a reward to the flies, beetles and bees that crawl into its modified petals.  One could argue that it’s mostly for insurance anyway. Although they do produce a lot of seeds, thanks to their winged dupes, showys reproduce mainly vegetatively, through runners (also known as rhizomes) sent out through the ground. This is why you usually find them in clumps.

Like most other things that civilization has come to regard as precious, their beauty and rarity have made lady slippers an object of fascination, something to be coveted and collected. Up here in the north woods, we’re lucky to have quite a variety of orchids. These past few weeks, the dryer forest has been dotted with yellow lady slippers, large and small and I’ve been able to find dozens of these stunning pink behemoths of the orchid family up in the boreal wetlands, away from human development.

Still, not all have been left in the wild. In my trips around the cottage subdivision where I live, I’ve spotted a few clumps of showys in people’s yards, caged in with chicken wire to save them from browsing deer, looking like a brilliant bird in a zoo. As nice as it is to have the opportunity to see these guys without having to get ankle deep in water, I can’t help but wonder how many were lost in people’s quest to tame this wild beauty.

You see, lady slippers don’t transplant well and they really don’t like having their flowers picked.  They’re bound to their habitat by a mutualistic relationship with a fungus that twines itself around the plant’s roots and branches out into the ground. It’s this fungus that helps the plant survive, taking up nitrogen from the surroundings and making it into a form that the orchid can use.  Moving the plant damages or even severs this relationship, making it unlikely to survive alone in its new home. For every successful transplant you see, there are usually many more that didn’t make it.

While habitat loss is also a concern, the plant’s stunning beauty could actually be the Showy Lady Slipper’s greatest threat, especially in areas where people can get to the wild plants relatively easily. Like the ibises and other plumed birds that were nearly brought to extinction for their beautiful feathers, misguided gardeners drawn by its colour and fascinating shape could decimate wild orchid populations. Already, this and many other orchid species are listed as threatened all over North America.

Still, I have hope. More and more people are beginning to realize that wild things are better off remaining wild and that the best way to capture and hold beauty in your hand is with a  camera.

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7 thoughts on “The Trouble with Being Beautiful ….

  1. A beautiful image to accompany this important message. I’ve never seen such large orchids. I’m quite surprised at their size. I also did not know that their seeds played such a secondary role. I’m surprised that there are more than a handful of successful replantations. I suspect that for each success there are innumerable failures; tragedies for the species. With your accessible writing style you will inform many who will not have known the risks of attempting to adopt orchids. Thanks for that.

    • Thanks, Cindy.
      I remember being surprised by how big they are when I saw them for the first time. They’re more of an eastern boreal forest plant. I never saw them when I lived in Alberta and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve seen this many in Manitoba. I don’t know much about their population numbers, but perhaps they’re on the increase.

      I think those transplants that are successful are the ones where people take a large portion of the substrate with them and around here, you’re moving it from one corner of the forest to another, so that also ups the probability of success. Still, I always heartily discourage transplanting. Some of my friends have a few and I always give them heck. They don’t plan to get any more.

  2. Your phrase “the trouble with being beautiful” is a good one. Unfortunately it isn’t just orchids that have suffered depredation. Here in Texas the bluebell (Eustoma exaltatum) was once much more common, but people over the decades have picked it to that point that it has been eliminated from many accessible areas. I’m happy when I can still find some in the wild. I’ve posted pictures of the species at

    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/detail-of-a-bluebell-flower/

    and

    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/more-about-bluebells/

    ion case you’re not familiar with it.

    Here in the hilly part of Austin we also have the deer problem that you mention, and people also resort to wire cages.

    Thanks for promoting your native wildflowers and explaining to people the importance of letting them be.

    • Thanks,Steve,
      I have a feeling that beautiful flowers are always in danger in accessible places. People just seem to want to have that beauty close at hand, even if it means destroying it. Your bluebells are beautiful. If I ever get down to Texas, I’ll be sure to go looking for them and take only pictures.

  3. So true, Heather, and well articulated in your usual, elegant style. I love how you bring these species up close to us, revealing not only their beauty and wonder but aspects of their lives that pass easily unknown.

    A few of us (on different days and in slightly different places!) recently discovered a new orchid species for Prespa. Like the showy lady’s slippers the lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum subsp. calcaratum) is inordinately beautiful, standing a few feet high and adorned with long dangling tongues of mauve, pink or white. I have never seen a flower quite like it, and suddenly there it was, which got me thinking not only about the remarkable process of an orchid’s becoming (Richard Mabey describes it as a bitter and protracted struggle between the fungus and the orchid seedling until one of them becomes ascendant) but also how it is still possible in a part of the world fairly well-studied to find something as radiantly noticeable as this.

    Long may these flowers be found where they belong – at home in a habitat, and in people’s hearts and minds instead of gardens.

    Thanks for sharing this…

    • Thanks, Julian. I’m sorry for taking so long to reply. It’s been a busy week. I looked up the lizard orchid and it is amazing. Reminds me for some reason of a maypole, with the ribbons dangling down.

      I think these species come out of the woodwork sometimes due to changes in the condition of the substrate. I’ve never seen so many showy lady slippers as I did this year along the road and I’ve been going up there for many years. It could be a combination of soil moisture and sun that led to such an abundant bloom this year.

      However, sometimes I think timing is everything, especially with flowers. If you’re off by a week or even a few days, you might miss a brilliant display from an otherwise easily overlooked plant. I’ve had that experience with Labrador tea. If you show up at the right time, the bog is carpeted in white, but it doesn’t last long.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing such a fascinating plant. I hope it continues to thrive in its habitat.

  4. I found your blog today and am really enjoying your posts. I especially like this photograph – I have never seen a lady slipper before. It looks lovely, and as others have pointed out, your message of conservation is so important.

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