Wildflowers 101: Showy Orchis and Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Wildflowers 101: Showy Orchis and Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Tom Harrington

Story and images by Tom Harrington

As the 2021 Great Smoky Mountains wildflower season rapidly draws to a close, let’s go back and discuss two adorable orchids—the showy orchis and the yellow lady’s slipper.

Yellow Lady's Slipper
Yellow lady's slipper

The showy orchis, or showy orchid as some call it, grows from six to eight inches tall, and the blooms appear in April and May. The hood of the bloom is normally pink or lavender, and the lip is white. The plant is fertilized by bumblebees that go after the flower’s nectar. The lower lip’s spur is said to contain a sweet syrup that has substantial sugar in it.

The yellow lady’s slipper can be from six to 32 inches tall, and the blooms are usually seen in April or May. One technique that has been helpful to me in learning to identify wildflowers is thinking of what the bloom reminds me of when I see it. For the yellow lady’s slipper I think of Cinderella’s slipper in the well-known fairytale.

These orchids are the beloved favorites of many. Unfortunately, their existence within the park is being threatened by poachers. Some of these individuals dig up plants in the park to sell them, and some aim to take the plants home and replant them. Although tragic for any plant species, orchid poaching is especially terrible because orchids are very unlikely to survive when transplanted due to their reliance on a special fungus in the soil to live. This is especially true for lady’s slippers.

Showy orchis
Showy orchis

For a number of years I enjoyed a large clump of showy orchis next to the concrete water tank on the Low Gap Trail, just above the Cosby Campground. One Saturday I noticed that the plant would be blooming soon, so after church the following Sunday I drove to Cosby to enjoy this gorgeous plant in bloom. Lo and behold, when I got to the water tank, I found a large hole where the plant had been for years. In the past I had seen as many as 12 to 15 blooms on that clump of showy orchis.

For years there were 6 to 8 yellow lady’s slippers that bloomed along Little River Road across the road from the western end of Metcalf Bottoms picnic grounds. Now there are none.

As you and I venture out to find, identify, and enjoy wildflowers, let’s agree to be cautious about discussing the location of the rare and/or endangered wildflowers. For safety reasons it is best not to confront a poacher, but get a license plate number, a description of the vehicle, and photos if they can be attained discreetly without putting yourself at risk. Thank you in advance for your assistance in protecting, preserving, maintaining, and supporting this jewel loved by so many—Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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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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