Wildflowers 101: Rosebud Orchid and the Pink Lady’s Slipper

Tom Harrington

Story and images by Tom Harrington

Rosebud orchid
Rosebud orchid

One characteristic many people possess is being competitive and enjoying challenges. For some, this might be during a game of golf or playing chess or checkers. Or it may be that the challenge you enjoy most is working on crossword puzzles. But did you know there is a most enjoyable, beneficial, and challenging activity that can be enjoyed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Searching for, finding, identifying, and enjoying wildflowers can be super challenging; however, you will find that this activity is a lot of fun and enables you—and me—to get much needed exercise while enjoying the park’s beautiful scenery.

Some of the orchids that grow in our national park can be challenging to locate. In this edition, we will examine the rosebud orchid and the pink lady’s slipper. Before we begin, please remember it is important that we be very selective about discussing the location of rare wildflowers due to wildflower poaching in the park.

In the 40 years that I have been hiking in the Smokies, it has been my pleasure to see a rosebud orchid probably no more than four or five times. This plant normally blooms from May to June. Among the reasons it is it difficult to locate is that it is not tall and is often growing among other plants. The color of the bloom is what I would call pink, and it has three purplish brown sepals that extend from the bloom.

Pink lady's slipper
Pink lady's slipper

The pink lady’s slipper is also called moccasin flower and blooms in April and May. It can be 12 to 18 inches tall. When you look at the bloom, it might remind you of what the human heart looks like. This beautiful orchid likes to grow in pine and oak forest, and it must have a certain fungus in the soil to live. One source reported that the fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant that enables it to absorb nutrients from the soil. If a person digs or buys a pink lady’s slipper, it is very unlikely the plant will live more than one or two seasons because of not having the fungus it needs to survive. 

Years ago, this orchid was used to treat nervous conditions and depression. Interestingly, pollinators must get into the plant through the slit in the red-veined pouch. Once inside, the insect will leave pollen behind that it brought in and will carry out pollen that it gathered while inside the bloom. It will exit the plant through two of the openings at the rear of the bloom.

I encourage you to find the time to go out into the park to look for not only the rare orchids but also to enjoy some of the more common wildflowers.

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Tom Harrington is an Army veteran and retired insurance agent who has spent his life in Knox County, TN. He is an avid hiker and has volunteered for GSMNP since 2000.

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