Lady’s Slipper, Moccasin Flower: Appalachia’s Vanishing Flower

Photo: Lady Slippers growing in the wild in Dawson County, Georgia. Courtesy of James Henderson
Photo: Lady Slippers growing in the wild in Dawson County, Georgia. Courtesy of James Henderson

Sometime long before the arrival of European colonists, a young Native American maiden whose tribe was dying of an unknown disease went out in search of medicine to save her people.  The winter’s snow was deep and the woman’s bare feet swelled and became frostbit as she frantically searched the wilderness for the herbs that would bring healing.

Sadly, the woman who had hoped to deliver her tribe from certain doom succumbed to her injuries and died all alone in the wilderness.

Though she was not successful in completing her mission, the woman’s courage and bravery was honored by a beautiful and new plant springing up from the place she had died: The Lady Slipper flower, also known in older days as “Moccasin Flower”.  A rare and beautiful plant whose flower was in the shape of a young woman’s shoe.

This is story is an ancient Native American legend and it is believed that the plant only grew in the exact location where the young woman’s feet had trod while she searched for good medicine.

The medicinal plant which serves as the official wildflower of New Hampshire is native to places generally east of the Mississippi River; however, it is more common in the northern United States and southern Canada than elsewhere.

In the early years of Appalachian settlement, Lady Slippers — and Pink Lady Slippers in particular — could historically be spotted in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, though a combination of water changes, wetland draining, habitat destruction and over picking have left the plant severely depleted in many parts of Appalachia.  The State of Tennessee has even gone so far as to declare the plant to be an endangered species, while it is listed as vulnerable in New York and considered “unusual” in Georgia.

In 1918, the American Forestry Magazine featured the plant, calling it “a truly wonderful story in botany,” adding that the flowers are “delightfully fragrant and it is a pleasure to meet with the plant in the deep woods… it is a pleasure that remains with one for a lifetime.”

Even in 1918, the magazine article went on to decry the plant’s widespread vanishing, stating, “This is due to thoughtless and uninstructed picnickers and joy-riders, who leave their machines to ramble far and wide through the woods where formerly the moccasin flowers grew in numbers.  Many of these people cannot forbear picking every pretty flower they can reach, and our beautiful pink lady-slipper, for very obvious reasons, is one that is most often destroyed.

Another thing that has led to the plant to reaching a place where it is endangered in some states is the fact that Lady Slippers are difficult to transplant or to grow in a non-natural location; perhaps this is connected to the native legend of the plants only growing in the location of the woman’s many steps!

According to the USDA, “The plant grows 6 to 15 inches tall and flowers generally between May and July… The root of lady’s slipper was used as a remedy for nervousness, tooth pain, and muscle spasms. In the 1800s and 1900s it, and other orchids, were widely used as a substitute for the European plant valerian for sedative properties.”

Pink lady’s slipper takes many years to go from seed to mature plants; the plants may live up to 50 years, taking up to 16 years to flower for the first time.

Pink lady’s slipper lives in a variety of habitats, growing in mixed hardwood coniferous forests of pine and hemlock on rocky/mossy slopes, and in semi-open or in deep humus and acidic but well-drained soil under birch and other deciduous trees of eastern United States forests.

If you ever have the privilege of “meeting one in the wilderness” savor the moment, but do not attempt to transplant it and certainly don’t pick it, after all, it takes up to sixteen years for the plant to flower for the first time.

Like the people who named it, the Moccasin Flower is steeped in legend, beauty and serves as a fascination to the rest of us; but sadly it enjoys but a fraction of its once splendid glory.

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