When you hear the name “orchid,” you may automatically think of some strange or fantastically colored flower from some remote, humid tropical jungle.
But not all orchids come from tropical climates.
If you’ve taken a forest walk in many of our provincial parks, you’ve probably seen some native orchids.
Some Ontario orchids are very pretty, while others are quite inconspicuous.
Moccasin is an Anishinaabek word. It is used by the Ojibwe, Nipissing, Algonquin, Mississauga and Odawa peoples to describe the familiar set of indigenous footwear that many of us wear as slippers.
The distribution of the moccasin flower in eastern North America coincides closely with the territories of the Anishinaabek people.
Also commonly called pink lady’s slipper, or the cool name poor-will’s whip shoes, the moccasin flower may look delicate, but it is a hardy plant, able to withstand the cold winters of northern Ontario.
There are a few species of lady’s slipper orchids in Ontario: Showy, Ram’s-head and Yellow all have that “slipper” or “moccasin” look.
Side and front view of the orchid.
The flower has only three petals: two small ones twist upwards on each side, while the third has grown much larger and forms the “slipper” from below.
We mentioned that he has an interesting life…
With its bright pink flower and enticing scent, Moccasin Flower is an attractive target for our native bumblebees. They get into the slipper looking for nectar, but they don’t find any.
The edge of the flower is turned inward so that the bee cannot move back and has to turn inside the shoe. It passes under the stigma of the flower and deposits pollen from other flowers that have attached to the bee. Upon leaving, the bee covers itself again with pollen, which it carries to other moccasin flowers, pollinating them and not obtaining nectar either.
The plant tricks the bee into pollinating it and saves valuable energy by not producing nectar. But the bee learns after a few visits to Moccasin Flower, so the flower needs a constant flow of young bees that don’t know they are being tricked.
Without this, the flower will not be pollinated.
The bee is attracted to the flower’s entrance on the bright pink lower petal, but must exit through the top of the flower, pollinating it.
So pollination is a complicated matter, but if the flower is pollinated and produces seeds, it becomes more interesting…
The seed will not germinate (or sprout) unless the conditions are right.
In perfect conditions, the fungi (found in large quantities in thin strands in the soil), attach themselves to the orchid seed and begin to feed it (!!!). The seed slowly grows into a “corm,” a thick underground plant stem from which roots and leaves grow. The lady’s slipper has not grown its own roots and would die without the help of the fungi.
A lady’s slipper patch clusters in Killarney Provincial Park. All of these can be connected to each other under the ground.
For several years, the orchid grows its root system, while being fed by the fungi. Once the roots grow, the orchid can grow a bud and leaves begin to develop. Now that it can feed itself, it’s time to pay the fungi back: the orchid’s roots now provide nutrients to the fungi.
The moccasin flower can take 10 years to bloom after developing its roots and leaves
This approach to procreation seems pretty tenuous, relying on fungi, perfect conditions, and some not-too-bright bees to produce a seed that seems to take forever to return to the flower stage.
However, the orchid has a backup plan…
The moccasin flower also produces underground stems called rhizomes, which extend from the main plant and sprout new shoots that can become flowering stems and leaves. If left undisturbed, a Moccasin Flower orchid can grow into a large colony, with many flowers clustered together. Some of these large plants can be over 100 years old!
A “forest” of moccasin flowers grows in a patch of sphagnum moss in Grundy Lake Provincial Park
Because of their vital connection to forest fungi and their intricate life cycle, they do not grow or transplant well into gardens, so gardeners and the rest of us have to enjoy them in their native habitat.
Where can you see the Moccasin Flower?
They are found in central and eastern Canada and the eastern United States, in a variety of habitats.
However, as we’ve mentioned, they grow best where they’re undisturbed, making Ontario parks a good place to spot them.
A group of Flower Moccasin or Pink Lady’s Slipper, in the boreal forest in Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park
Parks in southern Ontario could see them bloom in late May, while parks in central Ontario bloom in the first half of June.
In northern parks, orchids bloom until July.