Flower hides story in a slipper

Two small blooms that look white slippers hanging on stems stand out in green forest undergrowth.

Mountain-lady’s slipper blooms grow with the forest undergrowth in late June in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

By: 
Jenny Gessaman
Reporter
It may be a slipper, but it won’t fit on anyone’s foot, and many outdoor enthusiasts may end up stepping on it instead of into it. Despite its small size, the mountain-lady’s slipper still sticks out for careful eyes, and the orchid is a perfect example of Montana’s native plant diversity.

Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Botanist Justina Dumont said the flower is one of nearly 40 wild orchids that grow in the state. She said its most definitive characteristic, the unique slipper-shaped bloom, also provides an interesting survival situation: The shape of the 1-inch flower calls for distinctive pollination, a circumstance common in orchids.

“Orchids are a really advanced plant family in general, and they’re very specific to what their pollinators need,” Dumont explained.

She added some flowers are so customized, only specific creatures can help them reproduce.

While there is not a lot of research on the mountain-lady’s slipper, Dumont has read one theory on how the flower is pollinated. Nectar inside the “slipper” lures a bee inside, positioning the insect so the stamen touches its back and leaves a dusting of pollen. Each bloom hits the insect on the same spot, ensuring the bee is an effective pollinator as it moves from orchid to orchid.

“Orchids are fascinating because they have very specific pollinators and a very specific niche,” Dumont said.

Although many Central Montanans may not expect to find wild orchids, the mountain-lady’s slipper is not rare, according to Dumont. She clarified orchids do not usually grow in mass, like other wildflowers, so hikers may only see a few at a time.

“It’s patchy where it’s prevalent,” she summarized.

Dumont added the mountain-lady’s slipper growing patterns sometimes make it easy to decimate in an area.

“Having a small population, there is just a higher risk,” she said. “One tree can fall down and kill 90 percent of the population if it falls just the right way.”

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