And lessons I’ve yet to apply
I’ve done a lot of drawings of lady’s slippers.
It’s possible over the years, you may have noticed I have a thing for lady’s slippers, based on the sheer number of species, repeats, and different styles of lady slipper colored pencil drawings.
Now I’m trying my hand at gardening with lady’s slippers.
There’s a fair amount of controversy over gardening with lady slippers. In Minnesota, wild lady slippers are illegal to dig from public property or from private property without the landowner’s written permission. Wild dug plants are illegal to sell unless the owner has a permit, well-kept records, and state inspection first. Besides that, they are very difficult to transplant and struggle to thrive (if they even survive) in a garden setting. Their habitat is pretty species-specific, and they don’t like change. Seeds have a parasitic relationship with a particular fungus in the soil, and you can be sure they won’t grow from seed without it.
So generally speaking, it’s best to leave wild lady’s slippers wild. However, there are lady’s sipper nurseries that propagate seed in a laboratory setting. Enter Spangle Creek Labs . . . a Minnesota lady slipper propagator. Every year around New Year’s they open up for pre-ordering their current year’s list of available plants, then in May ship out the tiny, baby seedlings. There are other native orchid propagators who sell flowering-age plants, but they can easily cost $70-$100 a plant, for good reason. It’s a lot of work.
The process of raising baby orchids is fascinating. It seems a lot more like chemistry than gardening, since the plants are germinated in sterile flasks. For a while, they look a lot more like maggots than future flowers, but eventually they grow into something that could actually be construed as a plant. If you want to read about the process, visit Spangle Creek’s page on propagation. It’s very educational, and you can tell they’re devoted to preserving wild populations while doing a lot of work to grow native species.
This year I caught the pre-orders in time and gave into the temptation to try my own hand at raising lady slippers (or Cyps, in the lingo of hardy orchid growers. I did plenty of research first, and learned that lady slipper growers love the nickname for genus name Cypripedium).
The goal: raise these tiny seedlings . . .
. . . into yellow lady’s slippers.
My deepest love is for the Showy, but supposedly Large Yellow lady’s slippers are the easiest of the genus to raise, being the least picky habitat-wise: no bog or wetland required (whereas Showys love moisture). So since Yellows have the best chance at survival in my decidedly non-boggy yard, it was an easy decision which to try.
Preparation began with ordering long-fiber sphagnum moss well in advance, and then at last minute madly driving around town looking for partially composted pine bark fines. Four stores later, I settled for organic tropical orchid potting mixture, since it was the closest thing I could find to what I was looking for, and then I stirred up a soil-less mixture of the orchid mix, sphagnum moss, perlite, and sand. After wetting it thoroughly, it was time to plant the lady’s slippers!
Individual roots are about 4 inches long, with 3-4 roots per seedling. I spread them out gently on the medium and then covered the roots, while leaving the growth points poking out. The shoots are no more than half an inch tall, so they hide pretty well in the trays, even rising up out of the soil-less mixture.
Wherein I reminisce over my youth and the lessons I failed to learn:
I fell in love with lady’s slippers in 6th grade when Mom and my little brother and I tromped out through the cattail swamp to the lady slipper woods to look for them, only to find them on the way back in the meadow not a quarter mile from the car. But that’s not what I was thinking about the next day after I planted them.
Sometime in 4th or 5th grade, my teacher gave us all a timed assignment to be completed in class. She told us to read all the instructions first, then do the assignment. There were pages of instructions, so like most of the class, I worked on the different instructions as I read them. I didn’t have time to finish. At the end, Mrs. Maschler walked around to see what we had accomplished, then had us all turn to the last instruction on the assignment: “Follow the instructions for step #1 (write your name at the top of the page). Ignore all other instructions.”
You’d think, as I clearly remember the horror of failing my assignment after not obeying the teacher to read everything through first, that I’d be better about reading all instructions before starting a project.
How it pertains to my seedlings:
The next day, in my smug satisfaction of a task well completed, I glanced through the instructions that came with the seedings one more time before tucking them away for safe keeping. This time I caught the note at the bottom of the instructions: “Do not to use perlite with MiracleGro.” Wouldn’t you know, that’s what all the shops carry here, and naturally what I bought, never considering it was enhanced with fertilizer. Most native plants don’t actually care for rich soil, and orchids tend to grow in some of the least hospitable habitats for all other plants—definitely not in rich garden dirt, or anything that receives fertilizer.
So in shame, remembering my elementary failures that have followed me to adulthood, I gently extracted all my baby Cyps and dumped the potting medium in a 5-gal bucket. Since perlite floats, I filled the bucket with water and scooped out as much perlite as I could. Then I drained off the water, added a lot more sand, crumbled in old leaves, and replanted everything.
Maybe someday I’ll actually learn to read everything through before jumping in. But at least I caught it before it could kill my lady’s slipper seedlings.