The Peculiar Yellow Lady Slipper

Disa Woodland, Copy Desk Chief~

Dr. Nancy Cowden an Associate Professor of Biology at Lynchburg College, in conjunction with Dr. Priscilla Gannicott of the Chemistry Department, has been studying how native North American orchids have been maintaining their populations, with emphasis on the large yellow lady slipper orchid.Dr. Cowden says she became interested in the topic when it was suggested that, “some [orchid] plants disappeared underground for several years, to rest up, before being able to emerge and produce flowers again.” Dr. Cowden and Dr. Gannicott have both observed this to be untrue in their research. They, however, did not, at the time, have an alternative explanation for the somewhat erratic growth pattern of the yellow lady slippers.

Orchids are a diverse group of flowering plants that contain species differences that rival the diversity of human appearances. Because of this diversity, orchids are hard to make generalizations about which is the habit in scientific study.

Professor Research_ Dr. Priscilla Gannicott and Jennifer Thurman '09

Dr. Priscilla Gannicott and Jennifer Thurman ’09. Photo provided by Dr. Nancy Cowden.

For the last decade, Dr. Cowden has been observing the behavioral patterns of the yellow lady slipper, relative to their seeding and fragrance production, because unlike most flowering plants, the yellow lady slipper does not produce nectar. This is an oddity because nectar serves as a reward to the pollinators so that they return to the flower to aid in the seeding process.

Dr. Cowden and her associate Dr. Gannicott, as well as several students, have collected numerous fragrance samples in the hopes of mapping which scents attract pollinators and which do not, or may repel pollinators, namely small bees known colloquially as sweat bees. The scents that the lady slippers emit became the focus of the research because it is likely the reason some yellow lady slippers are successful in seeding. Their goal is to determine what type of information the flowers are sending to the insects via these fragrances and how exactly the insects are interpreting these messages.

Unfortunately, the remote location of the yellow lady slipper coupled with the solitary nature of its pollinators have made acquiring a large enough pool of definitive data quite difficult. The large yellow lady slipper orchids are picky growers and so Dr. Cowden and Dr. Ganicott must be careful in their research so that the orchids remain in as natural of a habitat as possible.

The large yellow lady slipper orchid is endangered and listed as rare in Virginia, so much so that researchers at the Smithsonian have become involved with Dr. Cowden’s project. They have begun trying to find ways to grow endangered orchids, of which there are many, in labs with little success because of the obscurity of the orchids’ growing patterns.