Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

Lady's slipper orchid flowers
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Lady’s slipper orchid fact file

Lady’s slipper orchid description

GenusCypripedium (2)

The lady's slipper orchid is Britain's rarest and most impressive orchid. The exotic looking flowers have claret petals that frame a beautiful bright yellow pouch (11). The specific name calceolus derives from the Latin for 'shoe' (13), and like the English name of this orchid, refers to the slipper-like appearance of the pouch. Each stem usually supports one or two flowers, but rarely three (12). The leaves have obvious nerves along their length and are mid-green in colour (12).

Height: 20-70 cm (12)
Petals: 3.5-5.0 cm (12)

Lady’s slipper orchid biology

Thought to be one of the slowest-growing plants in the world, the lady's slipper orchid takes between 6 and 11 years of growth before it actually produces flowers (10). The seeds are minute, dust-like particles that contain no food reserves. The materials needed for germination are derived from a symbiotic association with a mycorrhizal fungus. Orchids can be difficult to propagate in artificial conditions for this reason, but the lady's slipper orchid has been studied and successful ex-situ propagation techniques have been devised (7). It is dormant in winter, does not form tubers, but has creeping rhizomes (12).


Lady’s slipper orchid range

In the UK, this orchid once had a widespread but localised distribution in northern England and was known from Cumbria, Durham, Yorkshire and areas of the southern Pennines in the Peak District of Derbyshire (1). Although this species was never common (4), it suffered a severe decline in the 19th century due to over-collection for horticulture; at one point there was just a single flowering plant in existence (7). At present just one native population is currently known from a carefully guarded site (1). The species is at the western extreme of its range in the UK (5). Elsewhere it is known from France across central and northern Europe to Russia, northeast China, Korea and northern Japan (14).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Lady’s slipper orchid habitat

In the UK this species lives on limestone grassland (1) and open scrub and woodland (15) with an intermediate level of grazing (1).


Lady’s slipper orchid status

Classified as Critically Endangered in the Red List of Great Britain, Listed under Appendix II of the Bern Convention and Annexes II and IV of the Habitats Directive (1), and Appendix II of CITES (3). It is fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1984 and listed on Schedule 4 of the Conservation Regulations, 1994 (1).


Lady’s slipper orchid threats

The lady's slipper orchid has suffered at the hands of collectors and gardeners. Furthermore, its habitat has been destroyed as a result of increased grazing pressures (1).


Lady’s slipper orchid conservation

This orchid has been targeted by a successful Species Recovery Programme since 1982 (run by English Nature since 1992) and is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) (1). The remaining native population is carefully managed, and has benefited from wardening, suitable habitat management and the re-introduction of ex-situ propagated plants (1). The Sainsbury Orchid Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has propagated several thousand individual plants for reintroduction (6). There are also plants in cultivation, which are derived from wild stock (1). The species has also been reintroduced to other selected sites within the former range using small seedlings that were cultivated ex-situ from original wild stock (1), however the rates of survival are not good (8), and the re-introduction of more mature seedlings is envisaged.

The site supporting the native population has been designated as a candidate Special Area of Conservation, but the location has been kept a secret to safeguard the species (9). Kew and Natural England are working together to reintroduce seedlings into locations where the species died out. Some reintroduced plants have flowered and in 2009, seed pods formed after natural pollination by insects (16).

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.
There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Find out more

For more information on the Sainsbury Orchid Conservation project see:

Kew's Discover Plants and Fungi:



Information authenticated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Tim Rich of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.



Measures to conserve a species or habitat that occur outside of the natural range of the species. E.g. in zoos or botanical gardens.
A fungus that forms a close physical association with the roots of a plant, this relationship is mutually beneficial.
The transfer of pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Rhizomes are thickened, branching, creeping storage stems. Although most rhizomes grow laterally just along or slightly below the soil's surface, some grow several inches deep. Roots grow from the underside of the rhizome, and during the growing season new growth sprouts from buds along the top. A familiar rhizome is the ginger used in cooking.
Symbiotic relationship
Relationship in which two organisms form a close association, the term is now usually used only for associations that benefit both organisms (a mutualism).
In plants, a thickened stem or root that acts as an underground storage organ. Roots and shoots grow from growth buds, called 'eyes', on the surface of the tuber.


  1. IUCN Red List 2000 (January, 2002)
  2. Orchid magic (January, 2002)
  3. UKBAP. Species Action Plan (January, 2002)
  4. The Environment Agency. (1998) Species and Habitats Handbook. The Environment Agency, Bristol.
  5. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  6. Latin Dictionary and Grammar check (January, 2002)
  7. The UK orchid website (January, 2002)
  8. The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation project. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (January, 2002)
  9. (January, 2002)
  10. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (2002) Pers. comm.
  11. Rich, T. (2002) Pers. comm.
  12. BBC Nature- plant record breakers (January, 2002)
  13. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (January, 2002)
  14. English Nature (January, 2002)
  15. JNCC SAC Information (January, 2002)
  16. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (December, 2016)

Image credit

Lady's slipper orchid flowers  
Lady's slipper orchid flowers

© Jan Bukkems

Jan Bukkems


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