Take a Cyp

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Cypripedium ‘Ursel’

Growing up in northern Michigan, a somewhat rare but always exciting encounter would occur each spring while hunting the elusive morel mushroom with our family, when we would stumble upon a patch of one of our native Cypripedium orchids. Three species were regulars in our area; the lovely pink Cypripedium acaule, Cypripedium parviflorum with pretty yellow ‘moccasins’, the exquisite rose and white Cypripedium reginae. Though two species occur in Washington State (Cypripedium montanan and C. fasciculatum-on the eastern crest of the Cascades), meeting up with one here while hiking has been a much more rarified event.

The Lady Slippers or Moccasin Flowers, as they are commonly known, have modified one of its three petals into a remarkable and highly identifiable pouch. If one takes the time to observe the remarkable process of pollination its beguiling architecture becomes apparent. The pollinator, generally a bee, enters the pouch in search of nectar but finds after entrance there is only one escape. The insect must crawl through a small chamber at the back of the flower where it inadvertently captures and/or deposits pollen ‘packets’, ensuring fertilization.

Successful cultivation of our native lady slippers is a dodgy business. The above-mentioned C. acaule is too frequently found for sale at nurseries when in blossom, but alas these wild-gathered plants are doomed to fail. Complex mycorrhizal associations between these orchids and the soils they grow in are key to survival.

Fortunately, for gardeners in the PNW, there do exist some exotic species and a plethora of new hybrids that do perform to an admirable degree in our woodland gardens. Cypripedium formosanum, a beauty from Taiwan, is one of the best. On a yearly basis, the expansive colony at Heronswood offers hundreds of flowers just as its comely pleated foliage emerges in late April through mid-May.

Though you will find only remnants of this species still in flower should you visit this weekend, you will be treated to a remarkable showing of numerous new hybrids that show not only vigor in cultivation but exciting recombinations of flower color. Most of these are currently being created in Europe and later propagated through tissue culture (germinating orchid seed is a process best left to scientists and the nerdiest of plantsmen). Our growing collection of hybrid Cypripedium is putting on a remarkable showing this year, worth every minute in exploring the woodland- explosive in color from other minions of the shade- to discover yet another ‘Moccasin’ in blossom.

Remember too that this is National Public Gardens Week. To celebrate this attempt to gain clarity of the number of public horticultural collections in our own back yard to take advantage of, all visitors to Heronswood this Friday will gain free entrance!

We look forward to seeing you at Heronswood this Friday, Saturday or Sunday, 10AM-3PM.

– Dan