Restoration of a Rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid on the Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana

Blooming lady’s slipper.
Blooming lady’s slipper. Photo by Jason Singhurst, Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Cypripedium kentuckiense seedlings.
Cypripedium kentuckiense seedlings in 2007 from Spangle Creek Labs. Photo by Jim Barnett.

Cypripedium kentuckiense greenhouse seedlings.
Cypripedium kentuckiense greenhouse seedlings four weeks after planting. Photo by Jim Barnett.

A project to restore Kentucky lady’s slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) is underway at the Kisatchie National Forest (KNF) in Louisiana. This effort began with a Shreveport high school student, Kevin Allen. It has evolved into a cooperative project between the U.S. Forest Service and the Central Louisiana Orchid Society (CLOS).

Kentucky lady’s slipper is a rare and beautiful native orchid, found in about a dozen southeastern states. It is a showy plant, with large yellow and maroon flowers, and blooms in early spring. Leaves are large, oval-shaped, and pleated. Plants grow in moist woodlands, often near streams or seeps. Although this orchid is widespread, its distribution is spotty throughout most of its range. Populations often have only a few plants. Because of habitat loss and illegal orchid collection, it is becoming increasingly rare. Kentucky lady’s slipper grows on three sites on the KNF.

Kevin Allen began monitoring populations of Kentucky lady’s slipper in Louisiana and Texas several years ago, including the sites on the KNF. He was trying to find an orchid that had produced seeds. After three years of monitoring, Kevin found one plant with a seedpod at a site on the KNF. Orchid seeds are tiny, only dust-sized, and are very difficult to grow. Kevin sent the seeds to Spangle Creek Labs in Minnesota, a facility specializing in growing orchids. Spangle Creek was able to successfully grow seedlings from the orchid’s seedpod.

Kevin then met with the Kisatchie Forest Botanist, Peter Nilles, in 2005. Both were interested in obtaining the lady’s slipper seedlings to plant on the Forest, but buying and growing the plants until large enough to transplant and survive would be costly. Nilles met with Central Louisiana Orchid Society members, who agreed to grow the orchid seedlings in special greenhouse facilities in Louisiana. In cooperation with CLOS, Nilles won a grant from the Southwest Regional Orchid Growers Association (SWROGA) to purchase 200 seedlings from Spangle Labs. Later, two additional Foest Service grants were obtained to expand the effort, and 700 additional plants were purchased.

Since this type of orchid restoration had not been tried before, research is now being done to determine how to successfully reintroduce Kentucky lady’s slipper to the Forest. Phase one, growing orchid seedlings in greenhouses, proved to be a learning experience. The first batch of seedlings had only a 25% survival rate because plants died from heat stress and fungal diseases. Moving the remaining plants to semi-shady conditions improved their survival. Using this knowledge greatly improved survival of the second group of seedlings, 500 of the original 700 seedlings survived. The second phase of research, test planting the greenhouse grown seedlings in the forest, began recently. Seedlings from the first and second batches were planted in the fall and spring in plots near the site where the original seedpod was obtained. Seedlings have been planted with and without fertilizer, as well. Site and soil data is being collected at the seedling plots and at other sites where these orchids grow naturally. The test plantings should yield information that will help in deciding the best conditions for successfully outplanting Kentucky lady’s slipper orchids.

Plans are now being made to expand the restoration project. More seedlings will be purchased with remaining grant money. In the future, the KNF may exchange orchid seedlings with the National Forests in Texas in order to increase the genetic diversity of this species on both Forests. Three fertile seedpods were collected from Kentucky lady’s slippers on Texas National Forest lands in 2007. These pods were sent to labs for propagation, and seedlings could be ready for purchase by the spring of 2009.

The restoration of Kentucky lady’s slipper orchid has come a long way from its beginnings as a high school student’s project. Kevin Allen, now a high school science teacher, continues to follow the progress of the project. Kentucky lady’s slipper is well on its way to being restored in Louisiana, thanks to the combined efforts of Kevin, the U.S. Forest Service, and local orchid enthusiasts.