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.


Dragon’s Mouth and Grass-Pink

In the past week I’ve added two more orchid species to my hypothetical orchid life list. The first one, Dragon’s Mouth or Arethusa bulbosa, grows on the sphagnum mats surrounding one of the lakes on the property. Unless I wanted to bushwhack through the soggy thicket of the bog, to see it we had to go out in a boat. I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic canoe-er, normally, but Orchids of Wisconsin says this is “perhaps the most beautiful flower in the North American flora.” Give me my life jacket and my paddle and let’s go!

Of course, I quickly discovered that it’s very hard to take good macro photographs from a bobbing canoe. After a lot of attempts, here are the best photos I was able to get.

Dragon’s Mouth
Dragon’s Mouth again

The second orchid, Grass-pink or Calopogon tuberosus, was on another lake, but this time I was able to see it without the canoe – I just had to balance carefully and walk out on some fallen logs. This was actually at the same spot where I took the photo in this post from last fall, where the older logs in the water have turned into miniature islands over the years, with whole communities of bog plants growing on them.


In addition to their beauty, orchids are known for the trickery they employ to attract pollinators. Dragon’s Mouth orchids look pretty and smell nice, but it’s all a front – they have almost no nectar to offer. Apparently for their pollination they depend entirely on newly-emerged, inexperienced queen bumblebees. Once the bees figure out the trick, they stop visiting the flowers. As for the Grass-pink, its shape is an adaptation to place a bee in exactly the right place for pollination. The bee lands on that yellow brushy part on top, which looks like it’s covered in pollen but actually isn’t. Then the top part bends under the bee’s weight and the bee ends up squarely on the stigma, the female reproductive part of the flower. (At least, that’s how I understand it from the explanation I read.)

Who knew North Woods bogs were so full of sex, lies, and drama?



Trivia question of the day: which state has more native orchid species, Wisconsin or Hawaii? The answer is at the end of this post.

Yesterday after work we went to explore a natural area I hadn’t been to before – Almon Park Trail, on Buck Lake. One section of the trail is a boardwalk through a really lovely bog. With the leatherleaf in bloom, its clusters of white flowers everywhere, it looked like a fairyland.

But the absolute best part was this:

I had never seen a lady’s-slipper before. Last summer I got here too late in the season to see them in bloom, and I’d been looking forward to them all winter. When one in full flower greeted us as soon as we stepped onto the boardwalk, I literally jumped up and down a couple times. Specifically, this beautiful beautiful orchid is Pink Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. There were a LOT of them along the entire length of the boardwalk.

And one more wildflower before I let you go – this is Blue Bead Lily, Clintonia borealis.

Come August I’ll have to do a then-and-now post with photos of this one and bunchberry in fruit compared to flowering. Then you’ll see why it’s called Blue Bead Lily!

Answer: Wisconsin. (You figured out that this must be a trick question, right?) Hawaii has three native orchids. Wisconsin has around forty-five!