Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchid.

The orchids displayed at my local grocery store are members of one of the largest plant families. With nearly 30,000 species Orchidaceae, the botanical name for the orchid family, is large, diverse and one of the more economically valuable plant families. Recently I met a member of this family in the woods near my house.

Out hiking, I was fortunate enough to encounter the yellow “Lady’s Slipper” orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum). This wild child is difficult to raise in captivity; it has been over-collected for decades and while its native range covers large parts of our country it’s a noteworthy event to meet one in person.

This plant intrigues me on many levels, starting with its name. So a bit of backtracking into botanical Latin is helpful, but if you already know this you may want to skip ahead. Two words make up a plant’s botanical name, the first is the genus followed by the species. It’s reversed from how we introduce ourselves. My last name, Jenkins, describes my larger family while my first name, Lise, identifies me as a specific individual.

Cypripedium parviflorum has a little story to tell. “Cypria” is a Latin reference to the goddess Venus who was worshiped on the island of Cyprus. The second part of the genus name “pedium” refers to the foot-like shape of the flower. This is a case where the genus nearly directly translates into the common name “Lady’s Slipper.”

While there are nearly 60 species in this genus, three species of Cypridedium orchids are found in North Carolina. The species name, of the yellow “Lady’s Slipper” orchid “parviflorum” is a compound word with the first part “parvi” translating as ‘small’ and the second part “florum” meaning ‘flower’. Of the three Cypridediums, the yellow “Lady’s Slipper” orchid has the smallest bloom.

C. parviflorum is a hardy perennial orchid which is known for its plasticity. In other words, it can develop different traits in response to its environment. Without the ability to relocate to more ideal locations, plants can die off when local conditions become too harsh. However, this orchid can adapt its leaf shape in response to the availability of sunlight and its reproductive cycle and seed production change to reflect nutrient availability. Close inspection of a colony can reveal subtle changes in microclimates, surrounding canopy density and soil conditions. Reading the plants’ morphology, or physical appearance, can tell you a lot about where it lives.

Like an agreeable friend, C. parviflorum adapts to a wide range of situations and can be happy in lots of settings. If you spot one walking in the woods keep its location to yourself as this plant has been over collected. I like knowing that those orchids at the grocery store have a wild child cousin out in the woods — and its location is a secret I’m happy to keep.

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