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Lady's Slipper Orchid

By Peter Wilde

The lady's slipper orchid was once quite widespread if rather local on the limestone of Westmorland and North Lancashire. Collection by Victorian gardeners led to its extinction in the wild in the region, although a few plants persisted in gardens. Nationally, the species was eventually reduced to just one wild colony in the Yorkshire Dales by the 1970's.

Lady's slipper orchid Credit Peter WildeIn 1983 The Sainsbury Orchid Project was set up at Kew to research methods of propagating orchids from seed.

Initially the lady's slipper was a hard one to crack as the symbiont fungus could not be found - without it, the rate of growth of seedlings is greatly reduced. After many years of trials and research into different media and the techniques needed for weaning the seedlngs from sterile glass to compost, the people at Kew are now able to grow this orchid in quantity.

Gene sequencing of cultivated and wild plants have identified plants of British origin which are genetically different enough for inter-crossing - otherwise weak stock would result.

The first six seedlings germinated from seed gathered in 1987 were planted in the wild near Ingleton Falls in 1989. One flowered for the first time in 2000 - 11 years later and typical of many orchid species.

By 2003 some 2000 seedlings had been raised and planted out.

Since then, large numbers of lady's slipper orchids have been planted back in the wild at several key sites. A joint project between Natural England and the Wildlife Trusts of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria is attempting to make the species as common in the region as it was in pre-Victorian times, not necessarily at historical sites but also where it was considered it might thrive.

The project has had to learn quickly to understand the ideal habitat and situation. Initially losses were high due to molluscs and small mammals. For this reason older plants have been used in recent years. In the coming years it should be possible to see lady's slipper orchids in flower in May at many sites. One site where it is not thought necessary to keep it secret is Gait Barrows, the NNR just over the border in Lancashire, although all of the exact locations on the reserve are not being divulged. By 2012 there were 80 flowering plants on that site alone.

The long standing specimen at Silverdale flowers well in most years, despite having suffered some vandalism at times. It is now guarded carefully during the flowering period and visitors are able to see this wonderful plant in its natural state, although it is thought to be of central European stock.

In the wild pollination is effected by a small fly, which becomes trapped inside the huge lip. As there are only two ways out for the fly it's hairy back is forced to collect pollen and transfer it to another flower.

There are about 40 species of lady's slipper orchid world-wide, but this is the only one found in Europe. It's Latin name of Cypripedium calceolus translates as the little shoe of Venus.


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