By Rich Hawksworth
Earlier this year I committed to locating the six species of lady’s slipper orchids native to Northwest Indiana. These alluring wildflowers are members of the genus Cypripedium. The name, which is derived from Ancient Greek, is an early reference in mythology to Aphrodite, meaning “sandal” or “slipper.” Like their namesake goddess, lady’s slippers are at once beautiful and elusive. My quest led me across five counties and added more than a few miles to my odometer. One hundred years ago, I might have accomplished the same task on a sunny afternoon. Indeed, at that time, the Calumet region possessed some of the best orchid habitat in the country. Lady’s slippers were found by the thousands, in wet swales and moist thickets, rich woods, tamarack bogs, and sandy marsh borders. Many orchid populations eventually fell victim to the steam shovel and plow, but some were probably imperiled even before widespread commercial and industrial development. Plant-pressing botanists, professional flower pickers, and other well-meaning nature lovers exhausted the numbers that once seemed inexhaustible.
In his 1927, “Annotated Flora of the Chicago Region”, H.S. Pepoon lamented the fate of the pink lady’s slipper: “Cypripedium acaule, your regal beauty is your doom!”
Mr. Pepoon would be heartened to know that C. acaule still grows in the region, as do the other Cypripedium species present in his day. As a group, they persist largely in preserves managed by state and federal agencies or conservation organizations like Shirley Heinze Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy. In many cases, these fragile habitats and their denizens are not accessible to the public. Some locales are, quite literally, kept under lock and key. Others are shared in hushed tones like some pass-phrase to a prohibition-era speakeasy.
I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite lady’s slipper. C. acaule, the pink lady’s slipper, is a somewhat common sight in the coniferous forests of New England and the Northern Great Lakes states. In Northwest Indiana, it’s an exceedingly rare inhabitant of swampy woodlands and sphagnum bogs, where it grows with leatherleaf, pitcher plants, sundews, and other acid-lovers.
There are two varieties of the iconic yellow lady’s slipper’s slipper that occur in our region. The small yellow lady’s-slipper (C. parviflorum var. makasin) is a wetland plant, distinguished by its diminutive nature and undulating mahogany sepals and petals. Its cousin, the large yellow lady’s slipper (C. parviflorum var. pubescens), is found in a wider range of habitats, from wet meadows to wooded hillsides.
In his seminal “Orchids of Indiana”, Michael Homoya suggests that the dainty white lady’s slipper (C. candidum) probably grew “…by the millions in mile after mile of the Grand Prairie of northwestern Indiana.” Today, it’s confined to a handful of high-quality fens.
In some habitats, the white and yellow lady’s slippers grow in close proximity, producing a hybrid named Andrew’s lady slipper (Cypripedium X andrewsii). As you might imagine, the cross produces a beautiful orchid, with a buttery-cream lip and maroon sepals and petals.
Finally, the showy lady’s slipper (C. reginae), as its latin name suggests, possesses beauty befitting a queen. Sometimes exceeding three feet in height, the species’ velvet greenery cradles a breathtaking crown of brilliant pink and white.
My interest in orchids has blossomed into a hobby of sorts—one that, hopefully, will give others an opportunity to enjoy these native beauties without jeopardizing the remaining wild populations.
A number of years ago, I began to experiment with propagating lady’s slippers from seed. Orchid seeds are nearly impossible to germinate in the “normal” way—you know, plopping a seed into a pot full of soil. Instead, scientists have developed techniques for accomplishing the task under sterile conditions in a laboratory. The process is painstaking and slow, but the results are gratifying. My first batch of seeds (large yellow lady’s slipper) went into the “flask” in 2015. Five years later, I’m still waiting for them to bloom, but they are growing well in my home nursery. This past year, I started seeds for several other species. Someday, I hope to use my plants to restore historic populations that have disappeared from the region. You might say it’s my way of bringing nature home.