Mountain Lady’s Slipper

Last Thursday I found myself in a section of the Umatilla National Forest a couple hours’ drive north of where I’m living now, much closer to the border with Washington. It was beautiful – endless ridges covered with Ponderosa Pine, Western Larch, Grand Fir, and other majestic western conifers. However, I kept getting distracted from the trees by other, much smaller plants.

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Mountain Lady’s Slipper orchids (Cypripedium montamum)! They were all over the place, and the people I was with stepped right past them like they were no big deal, but as a newcomer to the ecosystem I was flabbergasted.

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I love lady’s slippers – I wrote about my first encounter with Pink Lady’s Slippers in a bog in Wisconsin last summer. Obviously the shape of the big petal pouch reminded some historical botanist of a woman’s shoe. Bumblebees crawl inside the pouch, attracted by colors and scents, only to discover that no reward of nectar awaits them. Then they bump up against the flower’s reproductive parts on their way out past the lip and hopefully carry the pollen to another orchid in bloom, where they’ll be duped all over again. (They do figure it out pretty quickly, though.) Fact of the day: the word “orchid” comes from the Greek word for testicle!

Mountain Lady’s Slippers grow in high elevation forests in western North America. If you ever come across an orchid in the woods, please, please leave it alone – one of the major threats to these showy flowers is overzealous collecting by plant lovers.

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