Recently, I felt an exhilaration that bordered on ecstasy when I encountered what, for me, is one of the loveliest plants in existence. The distinctive blooms of the lady’s slipper, for that is the plant, were growing on the banks of a clear, fast-flowing mountain stream (what Italians call, onomatopeically, a ruscello – pronounced ‘rooshello’). No plant photographer could ask for more and this one certainly did not. Which is how I came to spend the best part of three hours photographing the orchid Cypripedium calceolus in the Abruzzo, trying to do justice to this gem in fluctuating light levels on a grey day by using just about every lens I had in the bag…and then again some, just in case.
I first encountered the lady’s slipper in 1979 in Switzerland, in the Lauterbrunnen valley in lee of the Eiger set against a snow-covered mountain back drop when, that is, after seven hours sitting, the clouds lifted. On other occasions, I have encountered it in pine woodlands in Germany but more often in scrubby high-mountain pastures in France and in the Italian Dolomites…it is not one of the sights of which it is easy to tire and you get a feel for the kind of terrain in which it might be worth looking.
Beauty has been the agent of this plant’s demise in many of its former haunts. Over the years I have found references to the blooms being sold at ‘ten for a guinea’ to people in horse-drawn coaches travelling north through Yorkshire. It was also sold in market places and dug up by gardeners until it was almost wiped out: it has been extremely rare in Britain for well over a century. Fortunately, there are still good populations scattered throughout the limestone mountains of Europe in spite of its blooms having graced many a dining table in mountain hotels.
The lady’s slipper hangs on in Britain today and the best-known site (known to far too many people) is guarded annually and yet there are cretins who will still try to take cuttings. These obsessive individuals can have little or no knowledge of orchid cultivation since this is not the way to propagate such species. I well remember when I regularly visited Kew years ago (and was involved in behind-the-scenes projects) seeing, year after year, the small pots of plants steadily growing, that, it was hoped would one day be used to re-establish the species in the wild. Many of these have been planted out in places where once the plant grew and the localities are carefully kept secret. It is one thing to grow plants from seeds in a culture medium then to transfer to a tailored ‘compost’ and another to transplant into the wild. In the wild, seeds of all orchid species will only germinate where the soil contains the right mycorrhizal fungus. The fungal mycelia invade the tiny seeds (which contain no nutriment) and aid development: the seed dissolves the ends of the mycorrhiza within it to feed. Many tuberous terrestrial orchids gradually lose dependency on their fungal partner but woodland orchids, with their rhizomes heavily infected by the fungus, never do and will even revert to greater dependency should physical conditions change (eg light levels decrease). The delicate transfer of pot-grown plants to the wild is fraught with risk and has to be taken along with careful soil analysis and monitoring. I have personally been involved over a period of three decades with conservation projects mainly concerned with Mediterranean orchids and moving them from threatened sites. It is fair to say that much in this business of interventive conservation is learned by mistakes…however much care you lavish.
The common names of this orchid, in many languages, echo the sense of beauty that others have felt when they saw this improbably lovely orchid. Ergo, it has long been a favoured subject for some of the foremost botanical artists beginning with Gesner in 1541. All vernacular names derive from the clog-like shape of the yellow lip and concern Venus, the goddess of beauty, or the Madonna (as in Our Lady’s slipper) whom Christianity carefully ‘shoe-horned’ into the role of the pagan goddess in many instances.We have: Sabot de Venus (clog of Venus: French), Frauenschuh (Lady’s Shoe: German). In Italian it is Scarpetta di Venere (Venus’ bootee) or “Pianelle di Madonna’ (The Madonna’s slipper). The Latin name Cypripedium comes from the Greek: the ‘Cypri’ part from κύπρις (Kypris) the root from which the name of Cyprus, legendary birthplace of Aphrodite also derives: ‘pedium’ is from πέδιλον (pedilon) a sandal. Then, as if to emphasise the point, the Latin ‘calceolus’ translates as ‘small shoe or slipper’.
In 1983, in my first book “Wild Orchids of Britain and Europe” I related the legend behind the name:
“ …In days of old when gods and goddesses walked the earth, Venus was strolling through a forest when a sudden thunderstorm surprised her. She ran for shelter and, in so doing, lost one of her golden slippers. The next day a young shepherdess, leading her flocks through the woods to pastures beyond, saw the exquisite little shoe and ran to pick it up. However, just as she reached for it the treasure vanished and left there a flower in the shape of the slipper.
Floral beauty combines with an impressive level of ‘bio-engineering’ in the genus Cypripedium to ensure pollination from small pollen-collecting bees of the genera Adrena and Lasioglossum…more quotes from that 1983 publication.
“ A visiting insect slips down into the lip itself where veins guide it past a series of hairs towards a narrow exit. Along this route it brushes against the stamens and some pollen sticks to it. All this proves exhausting for an insect, and if it shortly comes into contact with another flower it has no strength to resist falling into the lip. This time pollen in transferred to the stigma causing cross- pollination. The path followed by the insect is an ingenious one-way system with retreat via the obviously large opening rendered impossible by the slippery sides of the lip. Hairs inside the lip provide the only footholds as the insect makes its way towards a set of transparent ‘window panes’ near the base of the lip..”
Although the system has evolved to favour small bees of the right size, other insects are attracted, too. When I was photographing the flowers there were large ‘midges’ – possibly attracted by the bright yellow, highly-reflective lip colour, the slight fragrance of the flowers, the nectar secreted by hairs on the floor of the lip…or even by the presence of one large, sweaty, blood-filled Welshman (completely destroying the vision of sublime beauty!)
If the lady’s slipper is rare and a Red-Data Book species in most (if not every one) of the countries in which it occurs, then its ‘forms’ are even moreso: they are sometimes listed (Keller & Soó -1930)as ‘varieties’ but probably deserve no higher taxonomic status than ‘form’. I have seen two (arguably three) in the wild: the first ‘forma viridiflorum’ has greenish-yellow sepals and petals devoid of the brown-maroon colouration. It has few documented sites and occurs infrequently in normal populations. The second, is much stranger and I have only heard of one site: ‘forma viridifuscum’ where the flowers barely open and are streaked with purple-brown. The only site I knew of was destroyed, inadvertently, following high winds that tore down ancient pine trees: the trunks were dragged from the forest and ploughed it up in the process…this fragile earth.
Other Cypripedium species
One species of Cypripedium occurs in Europe ‘proper’ though two others C. macranthum and C. guttatum are found in Siberia. Dr Phillip Cribb lists some 45 species worldwide in his excellent and detailed work “The Genus Cypripedium’ (Timber Press). The genus is confined to the northern hemisphere with China being the ‘Mecca’ for lovers of these orchids. Few species extend south C. irapeanum is one of two or three closely related species found in S. Mexico and Honduras. For anyone wanting to find out more about the genus and its members the book comes highly recommended. Phil Cribb is an old friend and a man unrivalled for his orchid knowledge. He was, for many years, keeper of the Orchid Herbarium at Kew but is not just an academic botanist being also a passionate naturalist and conservationist.
Conservation – some thoughts
Considerable funds and resources have been committed to the re-introduction of the lady’s slipper into some of its former haunts in the UK. The fact that a guard has to be mounted annually is indicative of what conservationists are up against. At one of its sites in Germany, in ancient pine woods near Hüffingen, a woodland is divided by a road: on one side grows Cypripedium in hundreds and on the other, a month or so later, grows the ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum). Locals have immense pride in these protected spaces and in the wood where Cypripedium grows duckboarding is constructed so that people do not leave walkways and thus, unwittingly, damage non-flowering plants.
There are always uncomfortable, pragmatic questions to be asked because those who control purse strings seem immune to arguments to protection and preservation on the grounds of beauty/fascination. Items always have to be index linked and if you can indicate some potential for money-making in our greed-obsessed society that is even better. Philistines rule everywhere, it seems.
One caveat sometimes goes along these lines: that money is limited and thus it should be used where it does most good in sites of greatest species diversity and not for ‘emblematic’ species. Bye-bye Panda and lady’s slipper….But it is these emblems that catch the public imagination and (we hope) encourage funding/donations as long as one can excuse the inevitable hyperbole about ‘rarity’ in press releases. In theory, if there was a more cohesive European environmental policy (something I would love to see) then it might make sense to choose where funds would be allocated most effectively on particular species. With looming global warming it is likely that a species such as C. calceolus will be far more difficult to maintain in its old haunts in the UK; whilst for the red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), a plant of warm woodlands in Europe, it might become easier…
‘Pie-in-the-sky idealists’ (I am a self-confessed member of that body) sometimes argue that money spent on nuclear armaments is wasted (true) and that funds would be better spent on alleviating poverty, ensuring clean water supplies and so on (also true). There are no guarantees and, indeed no mechanisms, for ensuring that funds saved from arms spending would be diverted. In exactly the same way, money saved by diverting funds for UK environmental projects would be unlikely to find its way to the right places in Europe and vice-versa…in Italy, it would doubtless be siphoned into the off-shore accounts of crooked politicians and their mafiosi ‘friends’. The current sad reality is that any conservation body has to grab what it can.