More than 30 showy lady’s-slippers surprised Clyde and Stacie Varnson, who live on 10th Crow Wing Lake.
While they have many yellow lady’s-slippers on their property, these are the first showy lady’s-slippers they have seen in the 30 years they owned this property.
The showy lady's-slipper is Minnesota's state flower, which has been protected since 1925 and is one of 43 orchid species that grow in the state.
Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox said the park experienced an abundance of lady’s-slippers this year as well.
“I’m sure good moisture levels have played a part because many of our orchids do like to have their feet wet,” she said. “Both here in the park and in the surrounding area, people have been commenting that they’ve been seeing showy lady’s-slippers they haven’t seen in a long time or ever before, also larger numbers of flower heads. Where sometimes we would see a single blossom, we’re seeing double blossoms. It’s been a great year for orchids.”
Cox said moisture from heavy snowfall carried into the spring, which made conditions ideal for orchids. This year’s orchids are also blooming later than usual.
“Some are just peaking now,” she said. “It has been pretty slow. In the first part of June, when it was so cloudy and cool, they just kind of got stalled out”
Cox’s records show the peak blooming for showy lady’s-slippers is typically mid-June. According to information from the DNR, the seeds of the showy lady’s-slipper are microscopic, as fine as flower dust, and windborne. Each pod on a plant can produce half a million seeds.
A showy lady’s-slipper takes 16 years before it blooms for the first time. “For about the first three years of its life, that plant is living underground if it came from a seed,” Cox said. “They have to have a fungus enter the seed and help support that plant for the first three years. Without that fungus, the seed won’t germinate and thrive.”
Lady’s-slipper plants emerge slowly. “We could walk by and not even notice it is a lady’s slipper because our forest systems here have so much vegetation,” she said.
In addition to growing from seeds, lady’s-slippers also develop in clumps, called rhizomes, with root systems expanding out. “An orchid cluster that is 70 to 100 years old might only be two feet across,” she said.
Cox said lady’s-slippers need very specific conditions to thrive. Orchids require a certain acidity in the soil, soil that is not compacted and a certain amount of moisture. Some orchids don’t flower or even come up every year.
Cox said white-tailed deer like to eat the blossoms of the showy lady’s-slipper, and if they browse in that spot two or three years in a row it can set the plant back so it doesn’t flower again for a few years.
“With a plant in the wild, there are so many things that can affect it,” she said. “Trees being cut after a windstorm, trails being cleared, any number of other things.”
She described orchids as both temperamental and tolerant.
“You can find some of them growing on rocky outcrops, as long as it’s acidic, but then you can also find them growing in wet, swampy boggy areas,” she said.
In addition to the impressive showing of the showy lady’s-slipper, Cox said the more common yellow lady’s-slippers are abundant at Itasca, too.
“They were so big and beautiful, with clumps we’ve never seen before,” she said. “It’s been fun to see people out and enjoying the prolific orchids throughout the park. A visitor stopped me this week and said they were hiking a trail they have been on every year and never saw one orchid, but they saw hundreds in one spot in an area that was hit by the 2016 windstorm so maybe they just needed more sunlight to bloom.”
She cautioned people against handling the showy lady’s slipper. “You can see little microscopic hairs on the leaves,” she said. “For some people, if they touch those hairs with their skin it can cause an allergic reaction similar to poison ivy.”