Pink Lady Slipper blooms in late spring
For the new year, it might be fun to grow something illegal. No, not marijuana or even opium poppies, but a forest plant that used to land you in jail if you poached it. There in the deep woods, usually under pine trees in damp or boggy land is a native orchid, the Pink Lady Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). This delicate-looking plant has two leaves that hug the ground with a single flower spike that bears a single light-pink flower with slightly yellow sepals and petals that accentuate the pillow-like large pink pouch. Rarely, the pouch will be pure white. Pink Lady Slipper blooms in late spring. In the wild, Cypripedium acaule grows in the eastern third of the United States and Canada almost to the Arctic Circle.
These plants are now available as nursery-grown rather than wild specimens. Order from local nurseries or by mail from specialists such as Logee's (www.logees.com). They are rare and quite expensive but worth the effort. The key to success with Pink Lady Slipper isn't just the soil, but the microbes that come with it. A specific fungus helps the plant grow. To nurture this plant and its helper fungus, watering is very important. Keep the soil moist at all times.
Never use tap water, as it probably contains chlorine and other chemicals. Use distilled water or rainwater. If you must use tap water, let it sit out overnight in an open container to let the chlorine evaporate. A mulch of pine needles or oak leaves will help keep the soil moist and acidic.
Because Pink Lady Slippers are woodland plants, they grow best in dappled sunlight under tall trees. Avoid direct sun or windy areas. Because it grows best in very acidic soil, add lots of peat moss or leaf litter to the garden area. Dig in at least four inches of peat moss or decomposed leaves. This high organic content will keep the soil damp but not soggy.
Keep an eye on the weather, and water well if your spring weather is dry. If the top inch or so of soil is dry, it is time to water. Keep in mind that young plants use less water. If you water too much, you will keep oxygen away from the roots, causing root rot.
Always dig a hole large enough for all of the roots without bending them. Plant so that the tip of the bud is just barely covered with soil, only a half inch of soil at the most. Water well after planting.
Never fertilize right away after planting. In the fall, you can top dress the plants with a six-inch layer of shredded tree leaves. This keeps the soil from frost heaving, which literally forces plants out of the ground. In spring, gently rake away the mulch.
If you do use a fertilizer, only use it during the spring and early summer when the plant is actively growing. A good balanced fertilizer, such as fish and kelp emulsion, is a good choice as it won't burn the delicate root system.
So take your Christmas cash, and buy a Pink Lady Slipper orchid that will return for years for a brief moment of magic in the garden.