Meet The Ladies: 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.

Did you know that in addition to the tall trees for which we are best known, a beautiful and sometimes hidden treasure of wondrous native orchids are on our National Forests and Grasslands?

They might have been one of our best kept secrets - but no more.

We want to share with the public this diverse, and frankly, awe-inspiring national treasure.

Shy and pale, or flaunting in glorious color, they can be found under trees, in small openings, grassy meadows or prairies. Some are rare or becoming rare, but with quality management and the help of our partners we can reverse that trend. To that end we practice conservation and manage their habitats so that future generations will also be able to enjoy their many benefits.

It is our hope that you too will be struck by their beauty and complexity as you meet here the elegant “ladies” of our National Forests and Grasslands and help us in our efforts to protect them.

Lady’s slipper orchids are in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family.

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

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.

Meet the Ladies

The thumbnail picture links below lead to information about some of the species of lady slipper orchid.

pink lady's slipper, Cypripedium acaule.
Moccasin flower (Cypripedium acaule)

ram's-head lady's slipper, Cypripedium arietinum.
Ram's-head lady's slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

California lady's slipper, Cypripedium californicum.
California lady's slipper (Cypripedium californicum)

white lady's slipper, Cypripedium candidum.
White lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

Clustered lady's slipper, Cypripedium fasciculatum.
Clustered lady's slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum)

spotted lady's slipper, Cypripedium guttatum.
Spotted lady's slipper (Cypripedium guttatum)

Kentucky lady's slipper, Cypripedium kentuckiense.
Kentucky lady's slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

Mountain lady's slipper, Cypripedium montanum.
Mountain lady's slipper (Cypripedium montanum)

yellow lady's slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum.
Yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)

Sparrow's egg lady's slipper, Cypripedium passerinum.
Sparrow's egg lady's slipper (Cypripedium passerinum)

showy lady's slipper, Cypripedium reginae.
Showy lady's slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

For further information about Cypripedium orchids

  • 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.