The term lady's slipper orchid is generally used for a subfamily of exotic-looking orchids called Cypripedioideae. There are five genera within the family, and they all have widely varying appearances and growing requirements. One of the most well-known genera is Cypripedium.
There are over 50 of these types of lady's slipper orchids—many of which are native to North America and Europe.
They're hardy, rhizomatous perennials that, unlike many orchids, can often survive through harsh winter conditions. They typically grow in shaded and cool woodland areas.
While they might cope with cold conditions, that doesn't mean lady's slippers orchids aren't without their challenges. If you can provide them with the right conditions and attentiveness, though, growing long-lived Cypripedium orchids will reward you with exotic looking flowers year after year.
They are named for their blooms that resemble pouches or dainty slippers. They're sometimes also referred to as Camel's Foot, Squirrel Foot, and Moccasin Flowers. Their blooms come in a wide range of colors, including white, yellow, pink and purple.
Because of their striking appearance, demand for lady's slippers orchids has grown rapidly in recent decades. The wild populations of these plants have dramatically decreased, with some now being endangered. This is as a result of over-collection and a reduction in the areas of natural habitat.
Take care to ensure that any plants you purchase are from reputable sources that have cultivated the orchids rather than harvested from the wild. Not only are the wild plants protected, but they're not likely to survive the acclimatization process.
Cypripedium species can vary considerably in their size, color, care requirements, and blooming duration, so always do your research before planting. Some will only bloom for a week whereas others can bloom for several weeks.
Wild Cypripediums appreciate shady, cool woodland areas. If you have successfully grown ferns in your garden, it's very likely that you can grow lady's slippers orchids.
Be careful about planting them too close to large rooted trees because the trees will absorb most of the available water and nutrients.
Unusually, the rhizomatous roots of wild Cypripedium don't grow into the ground. The roots lie on top of the soil and are covered with organic matter. So getting it right in terms of the medium they grow in is crucial to their care.
Strong sunlight is not your lady's slippers orchid's friend. They prefer dappled light that mimics a woodland setting.
Some Cypripedium cultivars can grow well in garden soils, providing they're well-aerated and well-drained.
Don't make the mistake of thinking they'll thrive in conditions similar to many other orchids.
Although they can be grown in the ground, they might not live as long as those that are bare rooted or grown in a specific artificial medium.
For best results, many enthusiasts will prepare the soil and then carefully stretch out the rhizomatous roots onto its surface and lightly cover the bare roots with a good quality mulch of shredded or fine bark..
Be sure to avoid compacted, heavy, and saturated soils.
Cypripedium lady's slippers orchids need consistent moisture to thrive. But, don't let them dry out or be exposed to constantly soggy conditions.
Temperature and Humidity
Compared to most orchid species, Cypripedium are very hardy and can tolerate below-freezing temperatures. Some even do better being exposed to frost during the winter.
Summer temperatures should be mild because these orchids can't tolerate intense, dry heat or excessive humidity.
Regularly feeding lady's slippers orchids will promote strong growth and impressive flowering.
It's a good idea to feed them during the spring about every 10 days to two weeks. A weak solution of a balanced perennial fertilizer is a good choice. Typical orchid specific fertilizers don't tend to be rich enough in nutrients for Cypripedium orchids.
Lady's Slipper Orchid Varieties
There are over 50 Cypripedium varieties, and here are some of the most popular.
- Pink lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule) - Although they can be tricky to care for, this is a popular variety native to Eastern U.S. The pink pouch is very eye-catching.
- Showy lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium reginae) - Also known as the queen's lady's slipper. Its leaves are large and its blooms have white sepals and petals with a pink to magenta pouch. It is cold-hardy in USDA Zones 2-5 and cooler parts of Zone 6. It is one of the most common species to be found in northern regions of North America and it grows into large clumps.
- Yellow lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) - An early bloomer, this variety is perhaps the most famous one found in Europe, and it's very cold hardy. It's one- to three-inch looms can be yellow, pink, or white
Propagating Lady's Slipper Orchids
Healthy and established Cypripedium orchids will grow into clumps. To maximize their longevity, it's best to divide large clumps every few years.
Propagation through cuttings of the rhizomatous roots is possible, but success isn't always guaranteed. Even if you're successful, be aware that it usually takes anywhere from two to five years before the lady's slipper orchid will start to flower.
Young plants often fair better being grown indoors (out of direct sunlight) for the first couple of years before they're carefully transplanted outdoors.
How to Grow Lady's Slipper Orchids From Seed
How easy it is to grow a Cypripedium orchid from seed will vary depending on the variety or cultivar. Some can germinate without too much effort, and others can be a challenge. Cypripedium reginae and Cypripedium acuale are considered two of the easier options.
Many varieties require a long period of cold stratification to break dormancy of the seed. Generally, planting a division of an existing, healthy plant, is a much easier option.
Slugs are often attracted to lady's slipper orchids. You might have to offer protection with your preferred method slug control, especially through the spring.