DARREL KOEHLER: The Prairie Gardener — Lady’s Slippers

With Father’s Day coming up Sunday (June 21), you may want to take dear old Dad on a trip to see the showy lady’s slipper, the state flower of Minnesota.

Named the state flower in the early 1900s, the lady’s slipper is unique in that it is a member of the orchid family. In fact, the showy lady’s slipper is the largest and most impressive of the state’s 43 native orchid species. (When out searching for a showy lady’s slipper, you may come across the small yellow lady slipper. Other orchids can be found in swampy areas, while others grow on the prairie.)

Yellow lady's slipper.
Yellow lady’s slipper.

While showy lady’s slippers may be difficult to locate, you can find this beauty in northwest and north-central Minnesota as well as the Arrowhead region. It grows in coniferous swamps and bogs, hardwood swamps and even on trails. A perfect spot to see them is in Itasca State Park. (Go below Douglas Lodge and walk over the boat dock. Follow the swampy trail to the Old Timer’s Cabin.)

I was in my 60s before I saw my first showy lady’s slipper. However, we have since found several good spots in northwestern Minnesota to view them, including Itasca.

They normally are in bloom for Father’s Day, but it could be later due to our odd spring. Besides Itasca, you can find them in Lake Bemidji State Park. (Stick to provided trails at either state park.) In the case of Itasca, you may also see the smaller yellow lady’s slipper as well as the showy variety.

The lady’s slipper should not be harmed in any way, as it is protected by state law, which has been in effect since 1925. (Before that, special trains would take passengers on trips, which included picking armloads of the precious blooms.) So, when taking photos, keep a safe distance from the lady’s slippers.

The flowers take up to 15 or more years to produce a blossom. A large clump along a trail may be 100 years old. 

While you can’t dig up a show lady’s slipper for your flower garden, they are available at select garden centers. But be warned: They are difficult to grow as they require a moist, acidic soil. (The smaller yellow lady’s slipper is easier to grow, so that may be a better choice.)

The lady’s slipper, like other orchids, has a very complex reproductive process. The seeds are minute. A fungus must be present in the roots of the orchid, delivering the nutrients to the plant.

The showy lady’s slipper bloom grows from the top of a leafy stem that may reach 3 feet. Petals and petal-like sepals are pure white, and the 2-inch long pouch is pink and white.

For more on lady’s slippers, there are books available at state park gift stores.


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