Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kentucky Lady's-slipper

A trio of Kentucky Lady's-slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense) grow along a small stream in rural northern Kentucky. This site is only about five miles from Ohio - on the other side of the mighty Ohio River - a state in which this orchid has never been found.

On May 12, John Howard, Shauna Weyrauch and I headed across the Ohio River to see this fabulous lady's-slipper. Neither John nor Shauna had seen it before, and I had only clapped eyes on it once, back in 2015 at this spot. As John lives in the area of where Kentucky Lady's-slipper could/should occur if it's in Ohio, it was especially important that he see it in the field and get the search image of the habitat. 

While superficially somewhat similar to the much more common and widespread Large Yellow Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens), C. kentuckiense differs in its taller stature, larger and paler flowers, habitat, and later blooming period.

We saw 18 flowering plants at this Lewis County, Kentucky site, and about five vegetative plants. Note the brownish clumps in the trees in the backdrop of the image above. That's leafy flood debris. Kentucky Lady's-slipper typically grows in areas that are regularly subjected to "flashy" flooding - abrupt high-water events of short duration. All the plants that we saw at this site were in a remarkably defined linear zone around the normal high-water levels ("wrack zone") of the small stream that they grew along. This is the habitat in which the orchid should be sought.

A pair of Kentucky Lady's-slipper flowers. Note the large whitish-yellow flower that is larger than any other of our lady's-slippers other than the utterly different Showy Lady's-slipper (C. reginae). For as large and showy is this species is, it can be easily overlooked. One, flood zones of rather scruffy woodlands along streams is not an A-list habitat for seeking orchids, and two, the pale coloration of the flowers and the often-dense plant life around them can conspire to conceal them from view, at least from afar.

Given its distinctiveness, Kentucky Lady's-slipper went undetected for a surprisingly long time, then endured a period of botanical confusion in regard to what exactly it was or should be called. Merritt Fernald, in his epic Gray's Manual of Botany (1950), makes no mention of this plant even at the varietal level.

However, there were enigmatic reports of a large, peculiar lady's-slipper from Kentucky and probably other southern locales dating to at least the late 1930's. Nothing was published or described though, so the orchid awaited formal "discovery" and description.

In April of 1951, Jim Daulton, who lived in Scioto County, Ohio, was on a fishing trip in Kentucky. A good amateur botanist, Daulton noticed some lady's-slippers that he recognized as decidedly different than the Large Yellow Lady's-slippers that he knew well. Daulton dug two clumps, took them home, and planted them in his garden.

NOTE: I met Jim Daulton early in my botanical career, probably in the early 1990's, at his house. He lived on US Rte. 52 in Scioto County, near the village of Friendship - only about ten miles as the crow flies from the orchid colony in my photos above. I wish that I could recall who I was with that day, but they knew Jim and thought that I might like to meet him, which I very much did. We heard lots about Cypripedium kentuckiense from the man who put it on the map, and those transplanted orchids of his were still thriving.

The transplanted orchids flourished, and Daulton tried to get every botanist that he could find to come look at them. Most ignored him, but botanist Victor Soukup of the University of Cincinnati became interested in Daulton's orchid and made a trip to Kentucky in 1977 to see some wild populations that Daulton pointed him to.

Thoroughly sold on the validity of the as-yet unnamed orchid as a distinct entity, Soukup published a description and diagnosis of it soon after his trip in a publication of the Mid-American Orchid Conference. He named it Cypripedium daultonii after Jim Daulton. However, Soukup omitted a latinized description in his publication, therefore invalidating the name.

In 1981, botanist Clyde F. Reed of Morehead State College published a correct description of the "new" orchid, branding it as Cypripedium kentuckiense - the name we use today. It seems remarkable that such a large, showy, and distinctive orchid could go undetected and unnamed for so long - its naming is more or less modern, having happened only 43 years ago. But the backwoods of Kentucky and much of mountainous Appalachia can be hard to explore, and there are certainly other discoveries awaiting.

Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

As indicated by the map, Kentucky Lady's-slipper has a localized and patchy distribution. Even within the larger gray areas, the plant would be quite local and very scarce overall. It is currently known from - or at least has been known - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. It is considered rare in many or most - all? - of those states.

Finding a new orchid species for Ohio, especially one as large and spectacular as Kentucky Lady's-slipper, would be quite the feat. But it's only five miles from our southern border, although there is a very large river in between. Still, Adams and Scioto counties, Ohio, is a hotbed region for southern disjuncts, many of them at their northern limits and for some, the only populations known from the north side of the Ohio River. I think it's likely that Cypripedium kentuckiense lurks undiscovered somewhere in Adams County or Scioto County.

1 comment:

Woody Meristem said...

Beautiful plant and wonderful account. Yes, there are probably many more populations of the plant -- other than when it's blooming, most people wouldn't even notice the plant and suitable habitats probably haven't been explored thoroughly.