Of the dozens of orchid species in the Pacific Northwest, the Mountain Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium montanum) might be the most exciting– because it is both beautiful and uncommon.
The flowers are large and showy. The lower petal is inflated into a 1-1.5 in (2-3 cm) white bowl, streaked with purple veins. In orchids, this modified petal is called the lip or labellum. The other petals and sepals are purplish or brown.
The flowers smell faintly sweet, like vanilla (the vanilla plant is also an orchid).
The sweet fragrance and appearance of the flowers attract a variety of bees. A visiting bee crawls into the bowl, looking for nectar. But alas, Mountain Lady’s Slippers and most other orchids don’t reward their pollinators with nectar. The bee blunders around inside the bowl and eventually makes its way out through a small opening where it is forced to pick up pollen.
In the photo below, a small wasp shows some interest in an orchid.
Pollinated flowers eventually produce thousands of microscopic seeds. These won’t germinate without the help of a fungus that serves as a symbiotic partner to the orchid.
The stems of this orchid can be up to 3 feet tall (100 cm) and each bears 1-3 flowers (usually 2). The alternating, oval-shaped leaves are about 6 inches (15 cm) long.
Amazingly, it can take over 10 years for one of these plants to produce its first flower. And they can live as long as 80 years!
Small populations of Mountain Lady’s Slipper are scattered across the northwest. In Washington and Oregon, they are found only east of the Cascade Crest and in a few places further west in the Columbia River Gorge.
A variety of habitats support this species. Open coniferous or deciduous forests between 2,500 and 4,000 ft (750 to 1200 m) seem to be preferred.
This orchid used to be more abundant than it is today. There are multiple threats to this species. Habitat fragmentation (due primarily to timber harvest), trampling by livestock, and collection by people have all contributed to its decline.
You should never pick or dig up wildflowers. The Mountain Lady’s Slipper is an example of a species that has been “loved to death” by people wanting to take it home for themselves.
I hope you get a chance to see and smell these amazing orchids for yourself. Please just let them live their long lives in the wild, where they belong.