Nature Nut: Not all orchids are finicky

The of the hundreds of Yellow Lady's Slippers on a nearby roadside.JPG
Three of the hundreds of Yellow Lady's Slippers on a nearby roadside.

Our Michigan daughter, Jenna, was heading home after a visit and declared, "I need to have a Minnesota State Flower for my garden."

Our son Bryan, a professional botanist, said it was a mistake. He told her the orchid she bought at Sargents, a Showy Lady's Slipper, or Pink and White Lady's Slipper, "needs an almost pristine environment, no chemicals, no peeing dogs, no kids running nearby, and a specific amount of both sun and shade."

It made the flight to Michigan OK, but now, according to Bryan, will require many years of care before it will bloom. How many years is a bit of an unknown, but Jenna was told it could be 15 to 25.

Interestingly, I had experiences with three of Minnesota's 49 orchid species this spring. The first was coming upon a Showy Orchid, also called Showy Orchis, on a wooded hillside near Plainview while mushroom hunting. I have seen a handful of these orchids on fungus forays over the past few decades. Compared to the other two types I will mention, they are quite small, although still very striking.

My second experience, later this spring, was a revisit to a spot where I had previously seen numerous Greater Yellow Lady's Slippers, the most common orchid in the U.S. Oddly enough, they are right along a gravel road less than five miles from Rochester. I was first alerted about this patch more than 10 years ago by Quarry Hill naturalist extraordinaire Kirk Payne.


These orchids are found on a vegetated bank facing the road, as well as the adjacent utility easement that slopes up and levels out further from the road. Kirk originally told me about them 10 years ago, shortly after the utility company had done tree and shrub clearing on the easement.

That seemed to be just what the orchids wanted, with a few showing on the bank 10 feet from the road, but many in the recently cleared upper area. I stuck to getting close-ups of the near ones, as poison ivy also liked the newly opened upper space.

After taking my wife, Linda, out to see them each year at the end of May or early June, it was not too long before they seemed to be dwindling in numbers, so we'd quit going the past few years. That was until a couple weeks ago, when I took the three-mile gravel road off a local highway and was treated to more than 200 of these yellow beauties within 10 feet of the car. Although I could see a few through the now-heavier vegetation under the utility lines, I didn't venture up for a count. But I guessed it might take the total well past 300 over the quarter-mile stretch.

My third orchid experience started with a note sent by reader, Richard Vrieze, about a Showy Lady's Slipper growing in his back yard. He invited me to take a look, which I did, taking along my very interested daughter and granddaughter. His orchid was growing on the edge of his yard, surrounded by woodlands, with a deer fence around them. He indicated he bought the plant in Grand Rapids five years ago and it has already been blooming for the past couple years. Naturally, that excited my daughter, as the plant was not too much bigger than hers.

I've always heard orchids do require special conditions and must establish a strong relationship with soil organisms before they bloom. Richard's garden area, which I hope to write up in a future column, was very pristine looking. But the roadside orchids were growing adjacent to farm fields, road gravel dust, and quite a bit of sunlight. So I guess only time will tell if or when Jenna's orchid might bloom and, if I am still writing then, I will let you know.

For those interested in the whereabouts of the hundreds of Yellow Lady's Slippers, you will need to email me for directions, and promise secrecy.

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