It is the traveler’s dower.
Last May I was wandering down our gravel road and found a ladyslipper growing in the dust and slash on the shoulder. It was beautiful and fragile and I looked for it as I went to and from work, wondering if someone might have driven over it or innocently picked it to bring home to mother. The blossom lasted through June and then shriveled naturally in the heat of July and the leaves blended with the weeds.
I checked today, and this year there are two!
I wonder what Spring 2011 will bring? Will they be able to form a proper colony in such an inhospitable place?
From the Vermont Ladyslipper website:
Cypripediums, like all orchids, begin their life cycle when their seed (pro-embryo) is invaded by a microscopic fungus (endophyte). Since orchid seed has no endosperm (stored starch reserves that kick start most other plant species), the fungus in essence forms a surrogate root system for the seed.
If the soil nutrient levels and pH are correct, the fungus becomes a symbiont and provides small amounts of carbohydrates to the growing seed(protocorm). This is a very delicate process whereby the fungus infiltrates the growing orchid seed to a certain stage and then the orchid seed defensively responds by producing a group of chemicals that actually dissolves the fungal filaments back.
After having its filaments dissolved, the fungus will then reattempt to invade the protocorm and supply more carbohydrates and the protocorm will grow again ever so slightly. This process is repeated until the protocorm has grown large enough to produce a small dormant eye bud and root system (seedling). Once this occurs, the following spring the cypripedium will produce it’s first green leaf and begin to use photosynthesis as its primary energy source. Once the seedling relies on photosynthesis, the cypripedium will reject the micro-fungus almost completely. This heterotrophic phase can take anywhere from 3 to 7 years to occur in nature. It can take an additional 5 to 10 years to reach flowering size which means the Cypripedium can take anywhere between 10 to 17 years to bloom, in the wild, from initial seed dispersion!
This above heterotrophic growth sequence only occurs when all the habitat and soil conditions are right. This is the primary reason for the natural rarity of cypripediums and not that the fungal symbiont they use is rare. Indeed, under many soil conditions, the fungus that the orchid requires can become a pathogen and destroy the orchid seed. There are several micro-fungi that have been isolated in cypripedium roots and the truth is that there are probably many more that could perform the symbiotic function given the right soil conditions.