Field of Science

A Slipper of the Lip

The world of flowering plants includes many unusual and eye-catching examples but even among all this variety the orchids often stand out. Their remarkable array of colours and forms have long fascinated people around the world. One of the more distinctive of orchid subgroups is the Cypripedioideae, commonly known as the slipper orchids.

Pink slipper orchids Cypripedium acaule, copyright Sasata.


Slipper orchids get their name from their most easily recognisable feature, a flower with a deeply saccate labellum or lip (the lower of the three petals) that is supposed to resemble a slipper (an analogy presumably settled on because the alternative of 'scrotum orchid' doesn't have the same ring to it). Like many other orchids, slipper orchids attract pollinators through deception rather than offering a genuine reward. Pollinators are enticed into entering the lip through its large central opening but find themselves unable to exit the same way (presumably because of the way that the rim of the opening curls inwards). Instead, they are forced to make their exit through one of two smaller openings at the base of the lip where it joins the flower's central column. As the pollinator exits this way, it must crawl past the stigma and stamens, removing any pollen it might already be carrying and depositing a new load.

Dwarf slipper orchid Cypripedium fargesii, copyright Steve Garvie.


The exact manner in which the pollinator is lured in varies by species and target (Pemberton 2013). Many produce odours that mimic legitimate nectar-producing flowers or potential food sources such as carrion. A group of species in the genus Cypripedium that are pollinated by bumble bees have low-growing flowers with a purple lip whose main opening appears black. They therefore resemble the opening of a mouse-hole of the type bumble bees use as nest sites. The North American Cypripedium fasciculatum produces a mushroom-like smell that attracts diapriid wasps that parasitise fungus gnats. Some species of the genus Paphiopedilum have light-coloured spots or warts on the flower that are mistaken for a colony of fat, healthy aphids by egg-laying hover flies seeking a food source for their larvae. Perhaps one of the oddest known set-ups is found in the species Cypripedium fargesii whose hover fly pollinator normally feeds on fungal spores. The orchid lures the fly in with patches of hairs on its leave that resemble a fungal infection. A few slipper orchid species are known to be habitually self-pollinating without the intervention of a pollinator; one such species, the South American Phragmipedium lindenii, has lost the slipper-shaped labellum and instead has a lip resembling the other petals.

Selenipedium dodsonii, a species only described as recently as 2015, copyright Andreas Kay.


Slipper orchids have been recognised as a distinct group from other orchids since at least 1840. A number of features isolate them from other orchids, such as their possession of two functional stamens (most other orchids have flowers with only a single stamen). More recent phylogenetic studies have corroborated their position as one of the earliest-diverging orchid lineages. Over 170 species of slipper orchid are currently known, divided by most authors between five genera; most of these genera have widely separated geographic ranges. The genera Selenipedium and Cypripedium have plicate leaves (that is, leaves that are folded within the bud several times longitudinally, in the manner of a fan) that are widely spaced along a well-developed stem, and a prominent rhizome (Rosso 1966). Selenipedium is a small genus found in northern South America that may reach heights of five metres. It differs from the more diverse Cypripedium in having trilocular ovaries and a commonly branching stem; Cypripedium, with over fifty species found across the Holarctic region, has unilocular ovaries and never branches. Cypripedium is the most widely distributed of the slipper orchid genera; the North American C. passerinum may even be found growing in tundra.

Paphiopedilum Leeanum, a cultivated hybrid originally developed in Britain in the 1880s, copyright David Eickhoff.


Phylogenetic analysis of the slipper orchids places Selenipedium as the sister group of the other genera with Cypripedium the next to diverge (Cox et al. 1997). The remaining three genera likely form a single clade united by the possession of a condensed rhizome and conduplicate leaves (folded once in the bud along the midline) arranged in a basal rosette. Paphiopedilum is the most speciose genus of slipper orchids with over ninety species found in India and southeastern Asia; it is also the genus most commonly found in cultivation. Phragmipedium includes over 25 species found in Central and South America; one of these, the Peruvian P. kovachii, has the largest known flowers of any slipper orchid, reaching twelve centimetres in diameter. The third genus Mexipedium, includes a single species M. xerophyticum found in Oaxaca state in Mexico. The three conduplicate-leaved genera are less distinct than the other two genera (one notable distinction is that Phragmipedium has trilocular ovaries whereas those of Paphiopedilum and Mexipedium are unilocular) and it has been suggested that they should be merged into a single genus. Nevertheless, not only are they all geographically distinct, they are supported as monophyletic by molecular analysis (Cox et al. 1997).

Phragmipedium caudatum, copyright Eric Hunt.


Their dramatic appearance has made slipper orchids highly prized in cultivation or by flower collectors. Unfortunately, many species have been subject to over-collection as a result. Many of the temperate Cypripedium species now require intensive conservation management, and populations of some Paphiopedilum species have been driven close to extinction. Once again, it would be a tragedy if such a fascinating group of plants was to vanish from the world.

REFERENCES

Cox, A. V., A. M. Pridgeon, V. A. Albert & M. W. Chase. 1997. Phylogenetics of the slipper orchids (Cypripedioideae, Orchidaceae): nuclear rDNA ITS sequences. Plant Systematics and Evolution 208: 197–223.

Pemberton, R. W. 2013. Pollination of slipper orchids (Cypripedioideae): a review. Lankesteriana 13 (1–2): 65–73.

Rosso, S. W. 1966. The vegetative anatomy of the Cypripedioideae (Orchidaceae). Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany 59: 309–341.

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