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U.S. Forest Service

About The Slipper Orchids

Cypripedium arietnum. Ram's Head Lady Slipper (Cypripedium areitinum). Photo by Ian Shackleford.

Cypripedium parviflorum. Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum). Photo by Maria Mantas, Flathead National Forest.

Cypripedium montanum. Mountain Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium montanum). Photo by Nan Vance, USDA Forest Service.

Lady’s slipper orchids are in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words "Cypris" an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal. This is because the fused petals that form the orchid’s pouch or modified lip (labellum) resemble a slipper or shoe. The staminode (sterile stamen) is often showy and seems to welcome the insect into the pouch where it makes its way to a back-door exit and in so doing transfers pollen to the stigma.

There are about 50 species that are widespread throughout boreal, temperate, and tropical regions of the European, Asian, and North American continents. More than 30 species are distributed in the Northern Hemisphere. Twelve species occur in the US and eleven are represented on National Forest System lands.

The Cypripedium orchids of North America are hardy terrestrial plants that can grow in cold climates and flower in early to mid-spring when there is plentiful moisture and cool temperatures. Species such as Cypripedium guttatum and C. passerinum that grow in Alaska are so well adapted to cold their shoots sprout up under the snow in the spring.

For centuries Cypripedium species have been sought after and collected not only for their unique beauty but also for the medicinal trade. Widespread collection, attempts at transplantation, and loss of habitat have drastically reduced their numbers. Wild lady’s slippers have special requirements that make them difficult to cultivate, and rarely survive transplanting from the wild. Because of that, on federal lands it is illegal to dig or pick the orchids.

lady's slipper flower with the major petal parts labeled. Photo by T.G. Barnes, University of Kentucky.

For More Information

  • Cech, R. 2002. Growing at-risk medicinal herbs. Horizon Herbs Publications, Williams, OR.
  • Coleman, R. A. 1995. The wild orchids of California. Comstock, Ithaca, NY.
  • Cribb, P. 1997. The Genus Cypripedium. Timber Press, Portland, OR.