Thursday, May 21, 2015

Serendipitously Stumbling into the Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper

When I woke up early last Sunday morning I had a hunch the day's botanical foray would be one to remember.  Fellow botanist and friend of mine, Roger Beadles had driven all the way from his rural southeastern Illinois home for a whirlwind tour of southern Ohio. We had a lot planned and I'll be sharing the highlights of what we saw and found in the next installment.  However, one particular discovery I thought deserved its own post and story.

Roger, like myself is a self-described wild orchid addict.  So naturally our excursion around the Adams and Scioto county region revolved around seeing as many spring blooming species as possible.  One that Roger had long wanted to see was saved for last in the elusive Kentucky lady's slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense).  It was early evening by the time we crossed the Ohio River into northern Kentucky, with the river valley's high rolling hills awash in crisp, bright sunlight.  Roger and I found the site with little trouble and the orchids in fabulous shape.  I hadn't seen them in bloom for several years and was thrilled to reacquaint myself with them.

After some camera time with the lady's slippers we decided to walk down the road a bit to explore the banks of the adjacent creek for more when something caught my eye on the steep wooded slope above...

Southern small yellow lady's slippers hiding in the woods

My attention was initially captured by the brilliant red color of some blooming fire pink (Silene virginica) but then focused on a beam of sunlight illuminating a small clump of curiously tiny yellow flowers.  It only took a second for their identity to pop in my head and I could barely contain my excitement.  Southern small yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)!

Trio of southern small yellow lady's slippers

My heart raced as I clamored up the slope to reach their dainty, sweet-smelling blossoms.  Your blogger takes pride in having seen over 70 of eastern North America's indigenous orchids, with the southern small yellows a glaring omission from that list.  The Cypripediums have long been some of my favorites and I've searched high and low, near and far in an attempt to see them all.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

I've had my fair share of experiences randomly stumbling into a previously unknown site/population of orchids (unknown to me at least) but nothing like this before.  Never had I fortuned upon such a significant life orchid, let alone one so far off the day's radar.  I didn't take the time to search the woods for other plants due to the long drive home still ahead of me but was perfectly pleased with the three prime flowering specimens staring back at me.  A fourth plant was present but seemed to have had its stem nipped sometime before anthesis.

Roger photographing the small yellow ladies

Roger took my excitement in stride and certainly got a rare glimpse of your blogger overcome with emotions of excitement and disbelief. He can speak firsthand that I don't fake the love and passion I hold for my beloved wild orchids.  The southern small yellows were a lifer for Roger as well and made it a five lady's slipper day for the two of us.  In addition to these and the Kentuckys, large yellows (C. pubescens), small whites (C. candidum) and pinks (C. acaule) rounded out the handful.

Close up of the southern small yellow lady's slipper
Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (C. parviflorum var. parviflorum)

In recent times the wide-ranging small yellow lady's slippers had been split into two varieties with Ohio sitting near/on the distribution dividing line.  The northern small yellow (var. makasin) is only known from two extant sites in Ohio, while the southern small yellow (var. parviflorum) has never been found and/or confirmed from within our borders.  I have my hopes it could be hiding somewhere in the depths of southernmost Ohio.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

Thankfully, the two small yellow varieties share very little overlap in their ranges, so geographic location is a worthwhile method of separating the two.  Taking note of their habitat will remove all doubt.  Northern small yellows are a species of wet, sunny, flat locations such as fen sedge meadows, wet prairie and moist coniferous/mixed woodlands.  Southern small yellows prefer more dry, shaded and sloped conditions in upland mixed oak/deciduous woodlands.  This particular site was under a mature canopy of white oak, red oak, sugar maple, beech, shagbark hickory, basswood and umbrella magnolia.  Additionally, the northern variety is richly aromatic with hints of vanilla and almond, while the southerns emit a soft, flowery fragrance.

iPhone photo of the three blooming orchids
Blogger's thumb and lady's slipper for size comparison

You might be thinking, "you keep using this word 'small' but I'm not sure what you mean".  It's a fair thought and one I can understand without anything to help scale these charming little beauties.  In comes the thumb.  Small indeed, I'd say.  Their labellums aren't even as big as my thumb and very reminiscent of the small white lady's slipper in size.  Looking at the photo above left removes any doubts or hesitations this is the real deal.  There are instances of small large yellow lady's slippers, which can make a confident identification a hard call to make.  I would point out that small yellows tend to bloom/peak a couple weeks after large yellows and typically have noticeably darker dorsal/lateral sepals with a labellum opening densely spotted with red dots. These particular plants didn't exhibit as dark of sepals as I would expect but that feature is quite variable.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

Even as I write this, I still cannot believe my luck that I would bump into such a treasured lifer, especially after a day already rife with excellent finds.  Our time with them was short but sweet and I'm already looking forward to seeking them out again next May for more chances at trapping their splendor with my camera.  As it would turn out, this freshly discovered site in Lewis County was a new county record for Kentucky, and extra special due to it being listed as a threatened species.  It seemed especially fitting that I would come to see this life orchid on May 17, one year to the day of seeing my last life orchid in the small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) in the mountains of northern Georgia.

Now to translate this success to Ohio and find the southern small yellow lady's slipper somewhere within our borders.  That would be an excellent addition to our flora, even if it's coming out of this orchid freaks mouth.  Stay tuned for more of Roger and I's phenomenal day in botany paradise!

-  ALG -


  1. Thank you Andrew for allowing me to see this life orchid. Beautiful and exciting even if I did need to crawl on my stomach to reach it.