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Lady’s Slippers — Orchids In The Wild

One of our most interesting wildflowers is the lady’s slipper – a variety of the wild orchid family – which is named for its shoe-shaped blossoms. There are six distinct species of lady’s slippers in Manitoba, as well as a couple of recently discovered hybrids. They range from quite common varieties, to fairly rare ones, with one variety classed as endangered. Some begin blooming in late May but most flower in June or early July.

The most common variety is the yellow lady’s slipper, of which there are two subvarieties – northern small and large yellow – though casual observers may not notice the difference. The size of the pouch and the stripes on it vary, as does the flower’s fragrance. The yellow lady’s slipper grows in a wide variety of habitat – meadows, forests, black spruce and tamarack bogs, as well as in disturbed areas such as roadside ditches. They may grow as single plants about 20 to 40 cm tall or, if the environment is suitable, may develop into large clumps.

Another lovely variety is the pink lady’s slipper or moccasin flower, found throughout the central forested part of the province, particularly in the jack pine forests of eastern Manitoba. This is the variety which is the provincial flower of P.E.I. and is the only Manitoba variety where the complete slipper is bright pink.

The most spectacular variety – and the one I really love – is the showy lady’s slipper. This type may reach a height of 80 cm, topped by one to three large blossoms. The lip is a bright-rose colour with the sepals and petals a showy white. It blooms a little later than other varieties, usually in late June or early July, and prefers a wetter habitat, often in bogs and forests, though it will also grow in roadside ditches. A white-flowered form of the showy lady’s slipper was recently discovered in the Brokenhead Ecological Reserve.

Another variety, a fairly rare one, is the ram’s-head lady’s slipper which grows in the northern Interlake. It is found in jack pine and spruce forests as well as sphagnum bogs. It is somewhat more inconspicuous, with darker-pink flowers that tend to blend in against the forest floor.

The small white lady’s slipper is a much rarer variety; since 1992 it has been designated by Manitoba as “Endangered.” It is found in unbroken prairie and wet meadows, in three main locations. The Tall Grass Prairie Preserve of southern Manitoba has the most with about 24 patches of varying sizes which are regularly monitored. Smaller populations are found in the southern Interlake and in the vicinity of Brandon. This variety blooms earlier than the others, in late May to early June, which makes it more susceptible to frost. It is also very slow growing and may take up to 12 years to reach maturity.

The only lady’s slipper found in northern Manitoba is the Franklin’s lady slipper, named after the explorer who first recorded it in 1920. The small flowers are a spotted white and are found in damp meadows around Churchill, as well as a few spots farther south. One colony is even reported in the Duck Mountains.

All varieties of lady’s slippers are slow-growing plants and may take years before they flower. The small white lady’s slipper is of particular concern, due to shrinking habitat and dwindling populations.

Please don’t try moving any of the varieties unless their habitat is being destroyed for a highway or cottage development. They are NOT easily transplanted because they have very specific habitat and soil requirements, and do not adapt well to other conditions. They may live for a year or so but will then die. Enjoy them in the wild, but let them live there!

Some nurseries have lady’s slippers for sale, so if you want some, buy them there. (You can locate these on the Internet.) However, it may take six to 10 years to propagate lady’s slippers from seed, so they are expensive, usually $30 to $50 per plant. Be cautious, for anyone selling them cheaply may be digging up wild ones.

In Manitoba, the Native Orchid Conservation Inc. is dedicated to promoting awareness of all Manitoba’s native orchids, and to help in their conservation. Their website is: www.native orchid.org/. Nature Manitoba also has more information on Manitoba’s wild flowers. Their website is: naturemani toba.ca.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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