Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Small white lady's slipper

Nature enthusiast and talented photographer Katie Byerly shares images of a gorgeous and rare native plant. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Finding a new wildflower is always a treat. I was treated this spring when a wildflower friend, Ken Plagge, called to tell me that he had found a Small white lady’s slipper at Wilkinson Pioneer Park in Rock Falls (Cerro Gordo County). Also called White moccasin flower, Small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) is a native orchid often associated with the words “rare” and “threatened.” It is found in prairie fens and wet/mesic prairies.

However, the treat did not end there. Ken and I soon found out from the Cerro Gordo County Conservation team that this flower’s presence had never been recorded at Wilkinson Pioneer Park. A short 24 hours after first seeing the plant, we were meeting with Mark Leoschke, a state botanist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, to help document the white lady’s slipper’s existence in Rock Falls.

Mark informed us that these plants were once common in every county in Iowa, way back before the loss of our native prairies, the lady’s slipper’s required habitat. These orchids need specific conditions, including a certain fungi and acidic soil. They are usually 6 to 18 inches tall. The plant has one, sometimes two, slightly fragrant white pouch-like flowers per stem, which bloom in May and June.

We wondered whether the three plants we found in Rock Falls had bloomed before and had just gone unnoticed. White lady’s slippers benefit from prairie management, such as prescribed burns. This particular prairie had been burned the year prior. I wondered whether the 16 inches of April snowfall was a contributing factor, since the prairie was a litter wetter this year than in the past. The Rock Falls prairie is virgin soil donated to the county in 1960. The land had been used for pasture since the 1930’s.

I agree with Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa when they wrote of this plant in Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie, “its short blooming time and restricted habitat make finding it in a prairie swale a memorable event.”

Even more memorable was finding 400 to 500 Small white lady’s slippers at Hoffman Prairie in Ventura (Cerro Gordo County) a week later!

Lady’s slippers should be enjoyed but left undisturbed and moved only if in danger of destruction.

For more information:

Minnesota Wildflowers

Rare Species Explorer Michigan State University Extension

Plant after the flower has finished blooming:

Tags: Wildflowers
  • How beautiful!

    What a treat to see these wonderful flowers and learn about that new location for them. Thank you.

    Besides prairie destruction, another problem for these orchids in Iowa has been deer overpopulation. Deer are especially fond of orchids and lilies, and an orchid-expert friend observed the large deer herd in one northeast Iowa public area destroying a large population of small white lady’s slippers some years ago. When he visited the site several years later, the orchids were still mostly gone.

    Deer numbers have very fortunately been reduced in much of the state since then.
    Not so fortunately, deer population goals are still being controlled more by politics than ecology, and that needs to change.

    Another problem for Iowa orchids has been illegal orchid-poaching, especially on public land. I have not heard as much about that in recent years as I used to, so I’m hoping it is not as much of a problem now.

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