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Jesica Conrad/Master Gardner: A most regal flower — the showy lady’s slipper

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columns Bemidji, 56619
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

One cannot help but be awed by the showy lady’s slipper, if by chance one is lucky enough to stumble upon any. Lots of "ohhhs and ahhhs" escape our lips when seeing this orchid.

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Boreal, temperate and tropical regions of the European, Asian, and North American continents host about 50 species. In Minnesota, there are 43 orchid species. Among them is the showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae), a member of the orchid family (and the rarest).

It’s been the Minnesota State Flower since 1902, and as of 1925, the state has regulated the collection and commercial sale of this species

Its stem is stout, hairy and rather twisted. The leafy stalk bears one to three large flowers about an inch to 2 inches long. They are white, rose pink in front and veined with purple or deep pink. The leaves are up to 10 inches long, elliptic and ribbed. About a foot to 4 feet in height, they are the tallest and most beautiful of northern native orchids. Insects pop into the alluring "slipper" and pollinate the stigma.

Flowering occurs from May to August in swamps and moist woods. They grow slowly, taking four to 16 years to produce their first flower. They can live up to 100 years and grow up to 4 feet tall.

No wonder these orchids are highly regulated. Showy lady’s slippers and yellow lady’s slippers are not listed as rare species in Minnesota, but they are listed in the Minnesota’s Endangered Species Act (Minnesota Statute 84.0895). It is illegal to either pick them or dig them up on federal lands. In Minnesota, you can dig them up but only with the written permission of the property owner and written authorization from the commissioner. If you’re caught, you’ll pay a fine.

Protecting the lady’s slipper native habitat is crucial to the survival of the species. This plant is uncommon in Minnesota and can be hurt by wetland drainage, road construction, tree cuttings and illegal uprooting and picking.

This brings me to the Lady Slipper Scenic Bypass. We have the perfect conditions for the showy lady’s slipper to flourish along the Lady Slipper Scenic Byway between Cass Lake and Blackduck (Beltrami County Highway 39). Until approximately 2016, there will be major construction there. There is an initiative to save the orchids that are in the path of destruction from roadwork. This website — ladyslipperscenicbyway.org/construction.html — provides information on how you can help as a volunteer plus updates on the construction. This is a great trip for summer company and restless children.

-- Fun facts: This orchid grows only as tall as a pencil point in its first year. Each year, the lady’s slipper may produce a half-million seeds as fine as flour dust. Some people may get a rash from touching the leaves of this gorgeous orchid. The genus name, Cypripedium, is derived from the Greek words "Cypris," an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite and "pedilon" for sandal. The species name, reginae, is Latin for "of a queen." Cherokee Indians made a preparation for the roots that was drunk as a treatment for worms. On Feb. 3, 1893, the Minnesota State Legislature passed a bill naming Cypripedium calceolus the state’s official flower. But the ladies of the Saint Anthony Study Circle of Minneapolis at some point announced this species was not found in Minnesota. In February 1902, the Minneapolis Tribune reported the flower error. There was quite a furor. The legislature rushed to adopt the correct species name on Feb. 19, 1902, naming Cypripedium reginae the official state flower.

To find reliable information about gardening and other horticultural topics, go to the University of Minnesota Extension website extension.umn.edu/gardeninfo/>

Local master gardeners will answer your gardening questions via a voice-mail service. Call 444-7916, leaving your phone number, name and the nature of your question. A volunteer master gardener will give you a call to speak with you.

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