A Complete Guide to Growing Lady Slipper Orchids
Plus, tips from garden experts on ways to cultivate this beautiful but mysterious flower.
If you're a gardener that isn't already familiar with lady slipper orchids—known scientifically as Cypripedium reginae—then you're missing out. "A lady slipper is a beautiful flower naturally shaped like a slipper," says Benjamin Godfrey, garden manager at Cornerstone Sonoma. "The lady slippers' name comes from its Greek named genus 'Cypripedium;' Cyprus was a name attributed to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, beauty, and passion."
However, ask even the most avid of green thumbs and they'll tell you the same: Growing these orchids can be tricky. "It takes a very long time for a lady slipper plant to bloom," says landscape architect Janice Parker. "I've heard it can take almost 10 years or more. They're an elusive and rather shy plant, so patience, as well as trial and error, is required to grow lady slippers."
Use Rich Soil
Often referred to as the American Moccasin Flower, Parker says lady slippers should only be planted in soil that's rich with natural minerals and nutrients. "They like a nice uniform amount of soil with a lot of organic matter," she explains. "This way the roots will grow strong and thick, and as the plant matures, it will become more robust and send up even more spikes of leaf and gorgeous bloom."
Plant in Indirect Light
While some plants blossom in direct sunlight, our expert says these require a bit of shade to grow properly. "Direct sunlight should be limited," Parker says. "As they are woodland nymphs, they love it underneath tall trees, such as Maple, Ash and Oak, or a Beech. However, they probably won't do that well under pine trees because they do not fare well in acidic soil." Godfrey adds: "It does well in direct morning or dappled sunshine and thrives in bright, indirect light."
Keep Soil Moist
Once you've planted your flowers out of direct sunlight, Godfrey says it's essential to keep the soil damp—not soggy. "Keep the soil moist, never dry or sitting in water," he says. "If the surrounding soil doesn't drain well, make sure to mound the plant enough for the roots to drain. If the soil is too heavy to drain, use composted mulch to amend it."
Beware of Insects
Like it or not, Parker says the shape of lady slippers makes them magnets for insects, so be sure to keep an eye out for hungry pests that might see them as dinner. "They have leaves that hang down like wings and attract insects," she says. "They tend to crawl into the labellum, or the pouch, which resembles a little shoe or a slipper."
Only Pick Them from Your Own Garden
According to Parker, picking this plant from anyone's garden other than your own isn't just a faux pas—it's a crime. "Lady slippers have very special horticultural requirements that make them delicate and very difficult to cultivate," she says. "It's illegal to dig or pick them if you find them growing—anywhere."