By Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist
The Lady Slipper, probably Maine’s best known native orchid, makes its home in many parts of the forests.
Maine has four species of Lady Slippers; Pink, Yellow, Showy, and Ram’s Head. Two of these are rare in Maine: the Showy and the Ram’s Head. (The “Ram’s Head” variety is endangered and rare world-wide). Being very beautiful, many folks would like to have some in their home gardens, but they are deep-rooted and next to impossible to successfully transplant. Lady Slippers require a specific fungus in a specific soil to survive. This fungus allows the plant to feed from otherwise unavailable nutrients in the soil. The acidic soil type is found only in forested wetlands, and under upland forested canopies of evergreens and thick hardwoods.
The flowers, which bloom in mid-spring through June, are difficult to pollinate; it’s the native bumblebees that do this by climbing through the narrow opening down to the base of the pouch where they hope to find the nectar there is. But, there is no nectar, just pollen. The bees soon learn that their efforts go unrewarded, so after visiting a few flowers in late spring, they stop trying and many flowers do not get pollinated and so bear no seeds. Fortunately, the flowers that do get pollinated will produce thousands of tiny seeds. These seeds, like the plant, require that special wild soil fungus to germinate and grow. When they do find these rare conditions, those little seeds will send their roots over six feet deep into the soil.
These growing conditions are obviously next to impossible to duplicate, and would be extremely expensive, and work-intensive to do so; no commercial operations exist for the sales of Lady Slippers. If you see one for sale, it has most certainly been dug up, and transplanting it would surely be unsuccessful. This is one wild thing that cannot be tamed, so please, enjoy it in the wild, advocate for its protection, but do not try moving it; it took a lot of work, and some luck, for that stunning plant to stand with pride in the forest, showing off its beauty!