Kentucky Lady’s slipper Orchid Restoration Project Uses Local Know How on Kisatchie National Forest Lands

Closeup Kentucky lady’s slipper orchid flowers.
Kentucky lady’s slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense). Photo by Thomas G. Barnes, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Kevin Allen with lady’s slipper.
Kevin Allen with lady’s slipper, April 2005. Photo by Peter Nilles.

Twenty-five day old Kentucky lady’s slipper seedlings growing in a plastic tub.
Twenty-five day old Kentucky lady’s slipper seedlings. Photo by Peter Nilles.

Closeup Twenty-five day old Kentucky lady’s slipper seedling growing in a plastic tub.
Closeup of 25-day old Kentucky lady’s slipper seedling. Photo by Peter Nilles.

Kentucky lady’s slipper surrounded by ferns and other forest floor plants.
Kentucky lady’s slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense). Photo by Thomas G. Barnes, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

This project, to restore one of the rarest and most spectacular orchids native to the South, began with the initiative of a Shreveport high school student. It has evolved into a cooperative effort between the Kisatchie National Forest of Louisiana and the Central Louisiana Orchid Society (CLOS). The high school student turned master’s degree candidate, Kevin Allen, is still intimately involved in the project.

Although Kentucky lady's slipper’s (Cypripedium kentuckiense, a species globally rare as well as extremely rare in the state of Louisiana) geographic range extends across the southern United States from Virginia to Texas, populations are widely separated. On the Kisatchie National Forest’s entire 600,000 acres, these orchids are currently known from only two locations, and five plants.

The project goal is to grow 200 Kentucky lady’s slipper seedlings to a mature size, and return them to the Kisatchie National Forest lands from which they were collected as seed. If even a fraction of these 200 seedlings reestablish successfully in the wild, it will be the first time a plant this rare has been increased in this way on the Kisatchie National Forest. It is a bonus that it happens to be the largest-flowered species of all the striking lady’s slipper orchids found in the United States, and one of the most spectacular plants in our Southern flora.

The decline of the Kentucky lady’s slipper orchid most likely follows the impacts of European settlement, such as loss of habitat due to logging and grazing, non-native plant competition, wild hog predation, and illegal orchid collection. In fact, over the last twenty years, 50 percent of known sites throughout the C. kentuckiense’s range have been eliminated (Medley 1985). Medley (1985) says that “…most of the [previously known] Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and many Arkansas populations are extirpated [locally extinct, but present in other parts of its range].”

The Orchid Hunter

In the grim context of declining populations of C. kentuckiense, an exciting development took place on the Kisatchie National Forest in 2004. Kevin Allen, an amateur botanist with an interest in native orchids, collected a C. kentuckiense seedpod from a plant on the Catahoula Ranger District. This was not a chance discovery. For several years, Kevin had monitored populations of C. kentuckiense in Louisiana and Texas. He was particularly interested in recovering a fertile seedpod on the Kisatchie National Forest. For several years, Kevin was disappointed in his attempts to find the plant in flower, probably due to naturally infrequent flowering cycles. Nevertheless, persistence paid off: after three years of monitoring, Kevin found a flowering C. kentuckiense on the Kisatchie National Forest’s Catahoula ranger district, and caused it to be self-pollinated. Weeks later, he was rewarded with a seedpod.

Orchid seedpods contain thousands of powder-grain sized seeds that are virtually impossible to grow in a conventional greenhouse arrangement. Consequently, Kevin sent the C. kentuckiense seedpod to orchid growing experts at the Spangle Creek Labs in Bovey, Minnesota. The seeds were found to be fertile, and the lab successfully produced seedlings using tissue culture methods. This orchid seed now represented an opportunity to revegetate forest lands with this dramatic and very rare native orchid.

It is very important to the restoration effort that the seed was gathered locally, because it maintains the genotype of the local population. This is especially important since Kisatchie National Forest populations represent the southern extreme of the species in Louisiana. If C. kentuckiense from other parts of the plant’s range were to be introduced, centuries of evolutionary adaptation to conditions on this southern range extreme could be lost.

The Kisatchie National Forest

Six months ago, Kevin Allen met the Kisatchie National Forest’s new forest botanist and described his vision of orchid restoration. Peter Nilles - the Kisatchie National Forest botanist since early 2005 – was interested, and set out to secure the grant monies needed to purchase the orchid seedlings. After a failed grant submission to the USFS, Nilles met with the Central Louisiana Orchid Society: a group of local orchid growers based in Alexandria. His goal was to see if they would be interested in “growing-out” the seedlings if they could be purchased. Growing out the seedlings would require sophisticated greenhouse facilities and expert care for up to 18 months. Nilles pitched his idea during a presentation at the January 2006 monthly CLOS meeting.

The Central Louisiana Orchid Society

Although CLOS members usually work with horticultural orchids of exotic origins, CLOS enthusiastically agreed to participate in the C. kentuckiense project, committing time and facilities worth nearly $10,000, but that was not all. Byron McGraw, CLOS founder, was aware of a funding source from a regional orchid organization: the Southwest Regional Orchid Growers Association (SWROGA). Providentially, this new grant challenged local orchid societies to involve themselves in native orchid conservation projects. Nilles got his grant off the shelf, and with the help of Byron and Jim Barnett, submitted it to SWROGA on February 22, 2006. The response was positive: CLOS was awarded the first ever SWROGA grant, enough to buy 200 C. kentuckiense seedlings. The final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

Nilles took the shipment of seedlings from Spangle Creek Labs on May 19, and distributed them among four CLOS growers and Kevin Allen (who is still involved with the project). Results thus far are better than anticipated: over 95% of the seedlings have successfully established themselves and already grown to over 3 inches in height. The final step will occur when Kentucky lady’s slipper orchids are returned to the national forest lands where they have grown for thousands of years.

Selection of the transplanting sites will be based on the best information available. Site selection will be determined after consultation with the botanists of Kisatchie National Forest, with participation of Kevin Allen, with involvement of the Louisiana Natural Heritage Program, and with specialists from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service who are interested in monitoring the project for use of the orchids in their Louisiana Native Plant Initiative.

After planting, the juvenile plants will be protected by screened enclosures. The sites and surrounding areas will be maintained in accordance with the best information available C. kentuckiense habitat. Site management and monitoring primarily will be the responsibility of the Kisatchie National Forest specialists.

For More Information

Peter Nilles, Forest Botanist
Kisatchie National Forest
(318-473-7016, pnilles@fs.fed.us)

Cooperators

  • Kevin Allen
    Amateur botanist and native plant enthusiast; recent graduate of Louisiana Tech University - Ruston with a B.S. in biology education; currently enrolled in a master’s of education program at LSU - Shreveport. Kevin was a high school student when he started this work. Contact info: cell 318-470-1560; kevinal@shreve.net
  • Central Louisiana Orchid Society
    Dr. James Barnett: Vice-President of the Central Louisiana Orchid Society (CLOS) and Emeritus Scientist, USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station (318-640-4755, jpbarnett@cox-internet.com)
    Byron McGraw: founder of Central Louisiana Orchid Society
    Ted Jobet: president of Central Louisiana Orchid Society
  • Southwest Regional Orchid Growers Association
  • Growers: Central Louisiana Orchid Society Volunteers
    Dr. James Barnett
    Dr. Wilton Guillory
    Al Taylor
    Linda Roberts
    Kevin Allen
  • Spangle Creek Labs
    A Minnesota based orchid lab that has donated 20% of the seedlings free of charge. Seedlings are available for public purchase from:

    Spangle Creek Labs
    21950 County Road 445
    Bovey, MN 55709

  • Louisiana Natural Heritage Program
    Offers expert help to locate ideal sites for reintroduction.
  • U.S. Army
    The Fort Polk reserve will receive an undetermined number of C. kentuckiense plants for planting.