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Plant of the Week: Orchid, Lady Slipper

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Lady Slipper Orchid
Latin: Paphiopedilum hybrids

Picture of two Lady Slipper Orchid greenish-white flowers.

People with a deep passion for their plant group often strike those who lack that intense feeling as somewhat strange. The most passionate, and therefore the strangest group of plant people, are the orchid people. The psychoanalyst would probably classify their fervor as a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, but to orchid people its simply called "orchid fever."

This condition has been wonderfully chronicled in a new book by Eric Hansen called Orchid Fever, a horticultural tale of love, lust and lunacy, published this year by Pantheon Books.

Hansen introduces us to orchid people around the world whose efforts to pursue their passion -- sometimes as a hobby, or as a scientist or a business -- is being threatened by what the orchid people consider an overzealous and woefully unenlightened international organization called CITES. This United Nations umbrella organization, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is based in Geneva and has a mandate to stop the trade on anything they put on their Appendix I list.

The original intent of the legislation was to restrict trade in elephant tusks, rhino horns and tiger testicles, so a provision was added restricting trade not only in living organisms but also all "parts" of said organism.

This makes sense when dealing with rhino horns because to get the horn you’ve got to kill the rhinoceros. But for orchids, the great majority of which seem to have been placed on the Rare and Endangered list, this restriction prevents collection of seed pods so that rare plants can be brought into cultivation.

Each orchid seed pod typically contains up to a million seeds. The technology for bringing these naked orchid embryos to life has been perfected so a single pod could easily supply the world with all of the rare orchids the market should demand. But because it is impossible to legally import seed pods, the price of the species on the Appendix I list are artificially inflated, often to thousands of dollars per plant.

The regulations are so absurd it is even illegal to collect rare plants that are being killed in tropical logging operations. The CITES rules, at least according to Hansen, are designed to completely thwart any efforts to use wild flora for commercial gain and to only allow a few select institutions such as botanists from Kew Gardens in London to gain access to the plants. The artificial barriers lead to high prices for the plants. When this is combined with the passion of serious collectors, people afflicted with orchid fever sometimes become orchid smugglers.

Paphiopedilum (pronounced "paf-ee-oh-pedilum") hybrids, now available from Florida and California growers during the late winter and spring, are harder to keep alive than their epiphytic cousins, the Dendrobiums.

The lady slipper orchids are a group of terrestrial orchids from the jungles of southeastern Asia, centered particularly in Thailand, Burma and Borneo. The leaves of this group are two-ranked from the ground, leathery, usually about 10 inches long and shaped somewhat like an amaryllis leaf. From the center whorl of leaves, the flower scape emerges with from one to three flowers that may be as much as 5 inches across. The flowers have an erect hood at the top, a pair of arching petals like a handlebar moustache and then an inflated slipper-like pouch at the base.

The array of color combinations, with striping and spotting, is limitless, but flowers typically are in shades of yellow, green, pink or combinations of these.

The plants should have a well drained, coarse organic potting mix and should be kept uniformly moist throughout the year, with special care not to get excessive water into the crown of the plant. Temperatures during the summer should be kept as cool as possible; but during the winter nights, temperatures should be kept above 60 degrees for most of the hybrids. Most orchid hobbyists have either a greenhouse or use banks of artificial lights to give the plants the care they need.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - June 16, 2000


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.