The pink lady’s slipper orchid, or moccasin flower (Cypripedium acaule), is the queen of springtime wildflowers. It is also one of nature’s most beautiful liars.
The pink lady’s slipper is irresistible to newly hatched worker bees, who emerge, not accidentally, at about the same time as the flower blooms. These worker bees are attracted to elaborate markings on the flower’s soft pink pouch (the modified petal known as the lip, or labellum), which falsely advertises a nectar reward inside.
Once the bee is within, slick walls and edges rolled inward prevent it from escaping back the way it came in. A successful bee (unsuccessful ones often don’t live to tell the tale) escapes — without any reward — through one of a pair of holes at the back of the flower, and, while squeezing through the narrow space, is smeared with a waxy, viscid pollen.
The bee, shaken but very much alive, collects itself and sets off to try yet another orchid. This next flower combs off the pollen and is consequently pollinated.
Relying on inexperienced worker bees is a good strategy for this plant, but even a bumblebee figures out that this fun-house pollination experience is ultimately unrewarding, and eventually learns to stop visiting Cypripedium flowers. But by the time this lesson is learned, the orchids’ brief flowering season is over, and these now-experienced bees will not live to see another year’s bloom. Perhaps because of this elaborate process, pollination rates for these orchids are very low.
If Georgia O’Keeffe never painted the pink lady’s slipper orchid, she must have thought its sexuality was just too obvious. Close examination of the hairy, luridly pink-veined flowers can make people uncomfortable. After all, it is a flower named “Cypripedium” — Greek for the “slipper of Venus,” the goddess of love. Examined in the cold, objective light of biology, this flower is the embodiment of plant reproduction. Why shouldn’t it look the part?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pink lady’s slipper is extremely rare within the city’s five boroughs. Orchids can thrive only where soil conditions include specific fungi that partner with the plants, and enable them to effectively absorb nutrients. Pink lady’s slippers prefer the thin, highly acidic soil where blueberries, pines and oaks dominate.
Fortunately, finding this most exotic of urban wildflowers requires hours of pleasant searching among the flowering trees, the colorful migrating birds, and the amorous calls of mating tree frogs in some of New York City’s most beautiful woodlands. If you are lucky enough to find a pink lady’s slipper, enjoy it with your camera or sketch pad; do not disturb it, as the plant cannot survive for long without its fungal partner. No matter how much soil you take with it, the orchid simply wastes away once removed from its surroundings.