Monday, May 25, 2015

Sometimes Flowers are Jerks Part 1: Pink Ladyslipper - Cypripedium acaule - Sabot de la vierge

The Orchidaceae (orchid family) have started to bloom now. My father and brother have reported that the Cypripedium arietinum (ram's head orchid) and the Cypripedium parviflorum (yellow ladyslipper) are both blooming now on my parents' property in the upper Gatineau. I wrote a blog post about those species last year. This year, my father and brother also reported something special.

While wandering around, they found another orchid, this one quite unusual for the area: the pink ladyslipper (pink lady's slipper, moccasin flower). The species is relatively abundant in Canada but occurs more in pine forests rather than deciduous (or mixed deciduous like is found on my parents' property). They were kind enough to send me photographs so that I could write a blog post about them, so today's photos were taken by guest photographers!

Cypripedium acaule with leaves - note the paired basal leaves and the lack of leaves on the stalk
This lovely flower is native to eastern North America (NA range map here; Canadian range map here). Unfortunately this plant is endangered in Tennessee (also commercially exploited in this state) and Illinois, exploitably vulnerable in New York, and unusual in Georgia [1]. In Canada it is doing better, listed as secure for the country as a whole and in most of its range; it is sensitive in Alberta, and has an undetermined status in the Northwest Territories [2].

Cypripedium acaule front view
So why do I call this pretty flower a jerk? Well, this is a 'deceptive' flower. Specifically, this is a food-deceptive flower. This species (along with both C. parviflorum [3] and C. arietinum [4]) has a strong fragrance which it uses to attract pollinators who associate the fragrance with nectar rewards -- but the plant doesn't produce any nectar at all, so the pollinator gains no benefit for its visit [5]. One might wonder why a plant would evolve such a system, of course; these plants are pollinated much less frequently than reward-offering plants [6,7,8], and not producing nectar would not necessarily constitute a particularly large energy savings [8]. The question of why deception is such a common strategy in orchids is an interesting one for researchers as a consequence. A number of theories have been proposed, some of which are discussed here for those interested.

Cypripedium acaule side view
One of the natural consequences of the plant's deception is that it depends on naive bees (bees that haven't visited it much before) for pollination, because they learn after a few tries that the flower doesn't have any reward and stop visiting [5,6]. So, there are few fruit produced each year (few successfully pollinated flowers) [5].

Cypripedium acaule front view - close - note the fine hairs (trichomes) on the petals and sepals
There is another interesting aspect of this (and other orchids') reproductive ecology that I will discuss in conjunction with some other flowers later this week, so those who are aware of the interesting thing I am skipping over -- I know, I'm just saving it for another post.

Cypripedium acaule bottom view
Many of these orchids are rare, and tend to do very poorly when transplanted in gardens. One of the major reasons for this is that many orchids are reliant on a particular type of fungus in order to germinate seeds [5,6], so they can't reproduce outside of areas where the fungus is present; so, when gardeners dig the flowers up and bring them to their gardens, the plants will not survive or reproduce effectively [6]. Thus, if you find these species in the wild please do not give in to the temptation to take the flowers. They won't survive and you will damage the population's genetic diversity. In fact, it is illegal to remove the pink ladyslipper in Georgia (poaching) [6], as this is becoming a serious threat to a variety of orchid populations. This caution applies to most wild orchids including the yellow ladyslipper and the ram's head orchid.

Many thanks to my guest photographers for the gorgeous shots!

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