Our three native lady’s slippers are part of the large family of orchids that can be found on Prince Edward Island. The pink lady’s slipper has officially been our provincial flower since 1965, though from 1947 on it was simply a generic lady’s slipper (represented by what looked suspiciously like a showy lady’s slipper). In the past, the showy lady’s slipper was used as a cut flower to decorate the Provincial Legislature. The showy, along with the yellow lady’s slipper, are both uncommon in the province.
The name “lady’s slipper” comes from the distinctive flower shape, which is reminiscent of a slipper or moccasin. Pink lady’s slippers are unique in that they have only two leaves at the base of the upright stem and a single flower. One source of confusion for beginning botanists is the fact that pink lady’s slippers are not always pink – there is a less common white form. Yellow lady’s slippers, like the showy, have leaves along the stem. The multiple yellow flowers are unforgettable, a brilliant yellow with maroon spots. Showy lady’s slippers are truly a regal flower. The sepals and petals are pure white, over-topping the pink and white “slipper”.
While their ranges can overlap, all three lady’s slippers have preferred habitats. Of the three, pink lady’s slippers seem to tolerate the broadest range of habitats. They can be found in the moss carpet under stands of old field white spruce, as well as in rich upland hardwoods. Yellow lady’s slippers can be found in a few open, almost boggy areas, as well as along stream banks that never get flooded. Showy lady’s slippers prefer open, wet areas. One excellent site in eastern Prince Edward Island is in a ditch along an old railway line.
Lady’s slippers grow from seed, though it appears to be an arduous process. They can take from ten to fifteen years to flower after seeds germinate and the rate of germination is never very high. The seeds don’t contain cotyledons (a built-in source of food) that all other seeds contain. The seed needs to come in contact with a beneficial fungus that will provide it with necessary nutrients. A laboratory in Charlottetown is presently attempting to grow some small plants from seed in sterile conditions and hopefully we will have some success transplanting these out.
These are flowers that should be seen in woodland habitats, not picked for cut flowers. They do not last long once cut and the potential for that year’s seed crop is lost. There have also been reports that all species can cause skin irritation, rashes and photo-sensitivity – other good reasons to look but don’t touch. Forest practices should be planned to reduce impact on pink lady’s slipper, and to eliminate impacts on the less common showy and yellow lady’s slippers. Transplanting any of these species from the wild should never be done, except where there is no option (such as when habitat is being destroyed). The plants have few fine roots to conduct water and nutrients – this role is played by the fungus that covers the roots – and so transplanting success is very poor. Given their rarity and beauty, it would be hard to justify killing any of these plants.