Orchids of the British Isles - The Lady's-slipper orchid Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Orchids of the British Isles - The Lady's-slipper orchid

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Orchids of the British Isles - Introduction
Animal Nomenclature | Orchids of Bogs, Fens and Marshes | Dactylorhiza | Helleborines (Cephalanthera)
Helleborines (Epipactis) | Insect Mimics | Lady's Slipper Orchid | Miscellaneous Orchids | Orchis
Saprophytes | Tresses | Twayblades

Lady's-slipper orchid - Cypripedium calceolus

This has to be the most eye-catching of all the British orchids. The single flower stem is born from a rosette of large, broad, lance-shaped, ribbed leaves. The stem grows between 30-50cm tall and bears one flower. The outer petals of this large flower are reddish brown. The top petal stands over the slipper, the two side petals stand out and slightly twist to look like a ribbon. The two lower petals are fused and curl underneath the slipper, which gives the appearance of it being supported by the lower petals. The slipper itself looks like a pouch, it is yellow and 2 - 3cm long. The inside of the slipper is marked with lines of orange dots and, just inside the opening, there is a large staminode1.

Bees of the genus Andrena are known to pollinate this plant in Europe and they are present in the British Isles; however they are only attracted to groups of flowers and ignore a single flower growing on its own. The bee can easily enter the slipper, but it is much harder for it to get out. It has to force its way out by pushing between the side of the pouch and the staminode; in the process, it gets dusted with pollen.

This orchid likes to grow at the foot of steep, grassy hillsides, where there is limestone present. It also likes woodland with ash and hazel trees.

Until recently, the UK population was down to just one single plant. So rare is this beautiful plant, that it is guarded by wardens 24 hours a day to ensure that it stays healthy and no one tries to steal it. It's not only people that are responsible for the demise of the species in the UK; attacks by slugs, rabbits and voles have also led to it becoming so rare. There are records dating back to the late 1790s, when bundles of slipper orchids were sold on market stalls in Settle. The Victorians had a love of orchids, and would dig them up from the wild to plant in their own gardens. Sadly the orchids didn't survive, as the conditions were not right for them.

Now confined in the wild to one secret location in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, attempts are being made to re-introduce the Lady's Slipper orchid. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew have played a big part; seeds were collected from the one remaining plant and propagated under laboratory conditions. After a period of the time the seeds germinated and several plants were grown. These plants have now been re-introduced to former sites. It is hoped that they will thrive and reproduce on their own. Hopefully in years to come, this will not be the rarest orchid in the British Isles.

1 A modified infertile stamen.

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