Photo by Adobe Stock/Victorflowerfly
With their delicate flowers’ close resemblance to dainty, ornate footwear, lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium spp.) are undeniably beautiful. Named after the island of Cyprus, Cypripedium has a romantic origin, referring to where Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was born. The suffix “pedium” likely comes from the Greek word pedilon, meaning “shoe” — with a bit of imagination, “lady’s slipper.”
Perhaps you’ve seen them while hiking through a wooded area or mountainous region. These small, ground-hugging, clump-forming orchids can be difficult to spot except during their bloom time between April and mid-June, when the drifts of flowers are absolutely show-stopping. The blooms — which range in color from yellow to cream to pink — each sport a “slipper” formed from modified petals (called “labella”) and three long, twisted sepals, which are usually not the same color as the slipper. The flowers are borne on short stalks that emerge from a rosette of leaves.
Photo by Flickr/Justin Meissen
In the wild, lady’s slipper orchids are rarely found in exposed sites. Instead, you’ll spot them beneath trees and shrubs, nestled into low grasses, or alongside ferns and other plants that thrive in places that don’t receive the direct light and heat of a midday sun. Lady’s slippers prefer cool temperatures and morning sun or dappled shade. They’re good selections to tuck beneath deciduous trees, as the tree crowns are open and allow light to penetrate below. Hostas (Hosta spp.), primroses (Primula spp.), coral bells (Heuchera spp.), and bergenia (Bergenia spp.) are excellent companion plants, as they all enjoy similar conditions.
Lady’s Slipper Specifications
Fortunately for gardeners, lady’s slipper orchids are not particularly choosy about soil type. While many orchids perform best in an acidic environment, lady’s slippers work well within a neutral pH range, so chances are you won’t have to amend the soil in your growing site. Your soil must be well-drained, however, and it’s prudent to avoid planting in compacted, heavy clay soils, as this will restrict root growth. If your soil is on the heavy side, try adding compost to loosen it.
The bright-yellow flowers of "C. parviflorum" are native across North America. Photo by Flickr/Steve Childs
Plant your orchids in fall or spring. It’s best to order plants from a reputable nursery. You can grow them from seeds, but it’s a slow process, taking years from germination to first bloom. Don’t dig up wild lady’s slippers for transplant into your garden. There may be laws in your area that prohibit this practice, and these orchids are notoriously difficult to reestablish after planting.
Purchased plants will usually arrive packed in wood shavings and should be cool and slightly damp; if they appear dry, you may need to soak them in a bucket of water for a few hours. They’ll almost always be shipped bareroot, which requires the following planting method.
Make sure the roots are loose and not twisted into a tight knot. Dig a hole about 4 inches deep, and roomy enough to spread the roots out. Don’t add any fertilizers to the planting hole. If you’ve amended the soil with compost during the preparation of your garden bed, that’s OK, but it’s not necessary to add anything beyond that.
The small pink slippers and white sepals of "C. reginae" orchids are rare, but can be found throughout the United States and Canada. Photo by Getty Images/Diane Labombarbe
The key is not to plant the eyes too deeply; they should be placed in the top inch of soil. “Eyes” refers to the growing points of the plant’s roots. Ideally, you’ll want to see several eyes per bareroot specimen. Cover the plant with soil, and water thoroughly to encourage the roots to penetrate the soil deeply, otherwise the orchid will suffer. Maintain a consistent watering practice for several months, until the roots are established.
Lady’s slipper orchids rely on consistent, even soil moisture for success. These are not drought-tolerant plants, nor can they survive in boggy conditions. Don’t use chlorinated municipal water to irrigate; instead, allow water from the tap to sit in a watering can for up to 24 hours before application.
These orchids aren’t heavy feeders, and are satisfied with a light side dressing of compost or a diluted solution of fish emulsion — about 1 part fertilizer to 3 parts water — in early spring. A balanced slow-release granular fertilizer, such as 20-20-20, is another good option. Apply any fertilizers after the plant leaves have started poking up out of the soil.
Particularly present in the northwest United States, "C. montanum" can be found in the mountains. Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images/Chris Babcock
While most lady’s slippers are cold-hardy to Zone 3 and therefore don’t require winter protection, it never hurts to offer a helping hand, particularly if your region is susceptible to cycles of freeze and thaw in the winter. Add a 1-to-1-1⁄2-inch layer of wood chips or chopped dry leaves before the cold sets in.
After about five years of growth, when the plants are dormant and the leaves have died back in late autumn, divide your lady’s slipper orchids to promote continued health. To do this, look for a clump of orchids with approximately 20 growing shoots, and use a spade to carefully dig it up. Gently separate the clumps, ensuring that each division has at least two eyes, and spray them lightly with a garden hose to get most of the soil off before planting. Then, transplant the divisions to a suitable location.
The modified petals of lady’s slipper orchids join to form a rounded flower shaped not unlike the toe of old-fashioned satin slippers. Photo by Getty Images/bjorn999
Let’s take a look at some common plant problems and how to counteract them.
- Yellow leaves. This can be caused by too much water, too much sunlight, or a lack of nutrients. Correct the problem by adjusting irrigation levels and offering a diluted concentrate of a water-soluble fertilizer. If light exposure is the culprit, you may need to transplant the orchids to a shadier location.
- Wilting. If the plant stems look dark and water-soaked, this may be your first inkling that root rot has taken hold. Plants don’t always survive this condition. Offer your orchids well-drained soil, don’t water too much, and don’t push thick layers of mulch right up against the base of the plants. Like gardeners, they don’t enjoy wet feet!
- Slugs. Has something been munching on your orchids? These slimy garden pests may be the ones to blame. Trap them with beer, or simply yeast and sugar water, in a dish or jar set
near the plant. Handpicking is another option, but this should be done at night, when the slugs are most active.
- Deer. As another decimator of lady’s slipper orchids (and pretty much the rest of your garden) these ungulates are difficult to deter. You can try nestling your orchids near the base of prickly roses. Or you can try scare tactics, such as motion-sensor sprinkler systems, or deer-resistant fencing. If you have a large grouping of orchids, it’s possible that deer will only destroy a portion of it, and the roots will probably stay intact to produce new shoots the following year. In this case, it may become a matter of grinning and bearing it.
- Dormancy. Occasionally, lady’s slipper orchids may decide to rest for a year, which means you won’t get any blooms, or perhaps much aboveground growth. Don’t be hasty to dig the plants up and compost them; they’re likely fine, simply gathering energy to produce new shoots. Keep them watered if there isn’t sufficient rainfall, and mulch them in the fall as usual, using a 1-to-2-inch layer of shredded dry leaves. A year of good growing conditions, with sufficient moisture, enough nutrients, and just the right amount of sunlight, will promote growing shoots and, subsequently, blooms for the next year.
With a bit of patience and proper siting, you’ll be rewarded spring after spring with the show-stopping blooms of these lovely, hardy orchids.
There are 12 native North American species of lady’s slipper orchids. Here are a few to try in your own garden:
Cream-colored "C. kentuckiense" orchids are native throughout the southern United States. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Orchi
Kentucky lady’s slipper (C. kentuckiense)
- Distribution throughout the southern U.S.
- Cream-colored slippers with yellow speckles and purple sepals
Mountain lady’s slipper (C. montanum)
- Native to mountainous regions (as the name suggests), particularly the U.S. Northwest
- White slippers with red-brown sepals
"C. acaule" orchids can be found across North America. Photo by Adobe Stock/Jean Landry
Pink lady’s slipper (C. acaule)
- Found all over North America
- Flecked pink slipper with burgundy-brown sepals
Showy lady’s slipper (C. reginae)
- Rare, but grows throughout much of the U.S. and Canada
- Small pink slippers with white sepals on tall stalks
Yellow lady’s slipper (C. parviflorum)
- Wide distribution throughout North America
- Bright-yellow flower with brown sepals
Sheryl Normandeau is a Master Gardener and writer from Calgary, Alberta. She grows mostly vegetables, but also plants perennial flowers, and always has a few projects in the works. Read more about her pursuits on her blog, Flowery Prose.