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How to Grow Lady’s Slippers, a Native Plant

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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Orchid growing has become a popular hobby. Most gardeners grow exotic orchids from tropical climates. We have orchids growing right here in the US that are very hardy and can be grown in our shady gardens. They are endangered though, so leave them in there woodland homes. Purchase these plants instead from nurseries that sell native plants.

What is Lady's Slippers?

Lady’s slippers (Cypripedium reginae) is a small orchid that is native to Northeastern North America. Its range extends from Canada south to Georgia. It is the state flower of Minnesota. Unlike tropical orchids which grow in the leaf litter in crooks of trees, lady’s slippers grow in soil. They are known as terrestrial orchids. The plants are most often found growing under deciduous trees such as ash, beech, maple and oak. They do not like acidic soil, so you won’t find them growing under conifers.

Lady’s slippers are hardy in zones 1 – 11. They are shade plants, preferring light or dappled shade. The plants are quite large, growing up to 3 feet tall. Each stem has 3 – 5 oval leaves that can be up to 10 inches long and 6 inches wide.

The flowers grow on stems, usually 1 – 3 per stem. Bloom time is early to mid-summer. The flowers themselves are usually pink and white or, very rarely, all white. The upper petals are white, while the lower pouch is usually pink. Pollinating insects are attracted to the flowers by the pink color of the pouch and the flowers’ scent.

Once inside, the interior hairs lead to the only way out, forcing the insects to pass by the stigma (female sex organ). If the insects have pollen from another orchid that they have visited previously, that pollen is deposited on the stigma, fertilizing it, as the insects pass by. On their way out of the flower, they pass by the anther (male sex organ) and pick up pollen that will be deposited in the next orchid flower that they visit.

Once fertilized, seed pods are produced, which are ripe by early fall. Each pod can produce up to 50,000 seeds. The germination rate is very low and it can take up to 8 years for a seed to germinate and grow into a plant large enough to flower so these orchids reproduce mainly by growth of their underground rhizomes.

The reason why the germination rate is so low is because the seeds do not have a food supply inside them to feed the seedlings like most seeds. Instead, they depend on fungus in the soil to eat through the seed coat allowing the embryo and then the seedling access to the soil and the nutrients it needs to grow.

The hairs inside the pouch direct pollinators to the stigma and the anthers to pollinate the flowers.

The hairs inside the pouch direct pollinators to the stigma and the anthers to pollinate the flowers.

How to Grow Lady's Slippers

The key to growing lady’s slippers is to mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Plant them in a shady corner of your yard or under a deciduous tree. They should only be exposed to morning sun, especially in the southern portions of their range which have hot afternoon sunlight.

Most gardeners purchase their orchids as bare root plants. That means that what you will get is just the roots, with no plant. Dig a hole in a shady spot that is large enough to accommodate the entire root system and allows the bud, which is where the plant will grow from, to be ¼ - ½ inches below the soil. After placing the roots in the hole, refill the hole with soil and water thoroughly. Water again when the top 2 inches of the soil is dry. Be patient. It could take a few months before you see growth above ground.

Chopped dried leaves are the best mulch you can use for your orchids. The decaying leaves produce the fungi that the orchid seeds need to grow. You can make your own leaf mulch by running a mower over leaves that have fallen in the fall to grind them up.

There is no need to fertilize your plant the first year. Starting the second year, you can fertilize using fertilizer that is specially formulated for orchids every two weeks during the growing season. Or you can apply a slow-release fertilizer in the spring.

White Lady's Slippers are very rare.

White Lady's Slippers are very rare.

How to Grow Lady's Slippers From Seed

Growing lady’s slippers from seed is a long, slow process. The most important factor for success is to use the soil that the orchids are growing in, rather than the potting mix that seeds are usually grown in. This is because the orchid seeds do not contain a food supply for the growing embryo and seedling like other seeds do. Commercial potting soil is sterile so it doesn't contain any fungi.

Lady’s slippers seeds need the fungi present in the soil to penetrate the hard seed coat and provide nutrients to the growing embryo.

You can harvest seed from your plants when the seed pods mature. At the same time gather up some of the soil the plants are growing in. Mix the seeds and the soil and then sprinkle the mixture in a shady area where you want the new plants to grow. Water only during periods of drought.

Germination should start to occur in about 18 months. It will take 5 – 8 years before the plants are large enough to flower.

© 2020 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on November 20, 2020:

Seeds are probably available from companies that sell native plants. I don't think that these will grow in the Philippines because they need a specific fungi in the soil that may not occur outside of North America. The seeds will not germinate without the presence of that specific fungi.

Eric Caunca from Philippines on November 19, 2020:

Where can I buy its seeds?. It is so beautiful.

Caren White (author) on November 19, 2020:

Thank you! Our native plants are often more interesting than the foreign exotics that are more commonly grown.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 18, 2020:

The flowers are lovely. The relationship between the plant and the fungus sounds very interesting.

Caren White (author) on November 18, 2020:

Thank you! I hope that you enjoy growing them in your garden.

Caren White (author) on November 18, 2020:

I think that they should be called Lady's Purses because of their cute pouches!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 18, 2020:

Great article about Lady’s Slippers. They are beautiful, thank you for sharing how to grow them.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 18, 2020:

Lady slippers are such a cute name for these plants. Thanks for the directions on how to grow them.

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