In Search of Venus’ Slippers: Finding Native Orchids in Northwest Indiana’s Vanishing Wilderness
— by Richard Hawksworth
Earlier this year I embarked on a search to locate the six species of lady’s slipper orchids native to Northwest Indiana. These alluring wildflowers are members of the genus Cypripedium. The name, which derives from Ancient Greek, is an early reference in mythology to Aphrodite, meaning sandal or slipper. Like their namesake goddess, lady’s-slippers are beautiful and elusive.
My quest led me across five counties and added more than a few miles to my odometer. One hundred years ago, I might have accomplished the same task on a sunny afternoon. At that time, the Calumet region possessed some of the best orchid habitat in the country. Lady’s slippers were found by the thousands, in wet swales and moist thickets, rich woods, tamarack bogs, and sandy marsh borders.
Many orchid populations eventually fell victim to the steam shovel and plow, but some were probably imperiled even before widespread commercial and industrial development. Plant-pressing botanists, professional flower pickers, and other well-meaning nature lovers exhausted the numbers that once seemed inexhaustible.
In H.S. Pepoone's 1927, Annotated Flora of the Chicago Region, the author lamented the fate of the pink lady’s slipper:
“In 1916, escorting a party of fifty men and women, we came to the margin of the stemless lady's slipper's sanctum sanctorum. We paused, doing our fill and passed on, not one person violating the unwritten law of the orchid lover. An hour later, as we ate our lunch on the margin of the swamp, a party of robust young men and women from [a nearby] college came along, and each gloried in the rare specimen he had plucked. 'Cypripedium acaule, your regal beauty is your doom!'”
Mr. Pepoon would be somewhat heartened to know that C. acaule still grows in the region, as do the other Cypripedium species present in his day. As a group, they persist largely in preserves managed by state and federal agencies. In many cases, these fragile habitats and their denizens are not accessible to the public. Some locales are, quite literally, kept under lock and key. Others are shared in hushed tones like some pass-phrase to a prohibition-era speakeasy.
Let me introduce you to the slipper orchids I encountered during my travels.
Cypripedium acaule, the pink lady’s slipper, is a somewhat common sight in the coniferous forests of New England and the Northern Great Lakes states. In Northwest Indiana, it’s an exceedingly rare inhabitant of swampy woodlands and sphagnum bogs, where it grows with leatherleaf, pitcher plants, sundews, and other acid-tolerant species.
There are two varieties of the iconic yellow lady's-slipper’s that occur in Northwest Indiana. The small yellow lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) is a wetland-edge plant, distinguished by its diminutive nature and undulating mahogany sepals and petals. Its cousin, the large yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens), is found in a wider range of habitats, from wet meadows to wooded hillsides.
In his seminal Orchids of Indiana, Michael Homoya suggests the dainty white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) probably grew:
“…by the millions in mile after mile of the Grand Prairie of northwestern Indiana.”
Today, this floral gem is confined to a handful of high-quality fens where it can grow by the hundreds, especially after prescribed fire.
In some habitats, the white and small yellow lady’s-slippers grow in close proximity, producing a hybrid named Andrew’s lady's-slipper (Cypripedium X andrewsii). As you might imagine, the cross produces a beautiful orchid, with a buttery-cream lip, often with maroon sepals and petals.
Finally, the showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae), as its name suggests, possesses beauty befitting a queen. Sometimes exceeding three feet in height, the regal beauty's velvet greenery cradles a breathtaking crown of brilliant pink and white. It is this species that once grew by the tens of thousands in the dune and swale region near present day Gary.
A number of years ago, I began to experiment with propagating lady’s-slippers from seed. Orchid seeds are nearly impossible to germinate in the “normal” way—you know, plopping a seed into a pot full of soil. Instead, scientists have developed techniques for accomplishing the task under sterile conditions in a laboratory. The process is painstaking and slow, but the results are gratifying. My first batch of seeds (large yellow lady’s-slipper) went into the “flask” in 2015. Five years later, I’m still waiting for them to bloom, but they are growing well in my home nursery. This past year, I started seeds for several other species. Someday, I hope to use my plants to restore historic populations that have disappeared from the region. You might say it’s my way of bringing nature home.