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The Moccasin Flower’s Challenge to Our Ego

Many people do not realize that wild orchids grow in North America. In fact, there are quite a few native and naturalized species belonging to the Orchid family (Orchidaceae) in the Northeastern United States, the region I belong to. One of the most striking is the moccasin flower, or pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule). On a recent hike in High Point State Park in northwestern New Jersey, a group of us came across several stands in marvelous full bloom. Moccasin flower is closely related to the Yellow Lady’s Slipper (C. calceolus, C. parviflorum), a species generally found further south but occasionally in our region as well. Eclectic physicians – preeminent American herbalists of the 19thand early 20th centuries who have left us a treasure trove of knowledge about botanical medicine – considered Cypripedium species to be helpful in cases of insomnia, nervous headaches, irritability, and delirium. Lady’s slippers and moccasin flowers are now threatened, endangered, or rare in their native habitats and have protected legal status in many of the states they are found in. They should never be harvested to be used as medicine or any other purpose. For those with children or a child-like heart, there is a lovely book titled The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper by Lise Lunge-Larsen and Margi Preus which retells the Ojibwe story of a brave girl who heals her village with herbs and gave rise with her sacrifice to thema-ki-sin waa-big-waan, or moccasin flower.

Increasingly we are recognizing that most if not all plants rely on mutualistic (or symbiotic) relationships to facilitate the absorption and uptake of nutrients in the soil. Primarily these are mutualistic relationships with fungi and are known collectively as mycorrhizal relationships, in which the small thread-like hyphae of the fungi in the soil intertwine with and in some cases even enter into the rootlets of the plants they share the soil with. The fungi provide the plant with soil-based nutrients such as minerals, an in return receive carbohydrates (sugar) from the plant produced through photosynthesis. It turns out that moccasin flowers in particular are some of the plants most dependent on mycorrhizae for their nutrition. Their reliance on the presence of a small number of specific fungal species in order to thrive may explain both their relative rarity as well as the challenges in cultivating them.

We have our own mutualistic relationships in the form of the human microbiome, dependent for our digestive and to some degree immune health on tens of thousands of species and trillions of individual microorganisms that live on our skin and lining the mucosal layers of our mouth, esophagus, and gastrointestinal tract. In essence, we can think of our G.I. tracts as our soil, or in turn we can view the soil as the digestive tract of the plant world.

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