The Elusive Lady’s–Slipper Orchid

This week’s new blog has been written by our Natural Sciences Curator, Dr Gerard McGowan

He writes:

A recent enquiry about our collections brought to mind a rare and ‘infamous’ specimen in our Botany Collection, specifically from the Herbarium Collection of Dr William Arthur Sledge (NS.30.82). Dr Sledge (1904-1991) was a noted botanist and spent his entire academic career at University of Leeds from 1928-69. You can read a short bio here and an obituary here. The controversy all centres on the collection of a very rare orchid from the last known wild habitat.

Once regarded as one of the rarest flowers on mainland Britain the Lady’s-Slipper orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, was both protected and highly prized (see Fig. 1).

This beautiful flower is a very striking and colourful orchid that is found throughout Europe and Asia. On mainland Britain, however, it became very rare indeed with only one remaining site of wild native flowers known. It was previously fairly common across the north of England especially in the Yorkshire Dales. However, due to habitat loss and over grazing by sheep the markedly reduced numbers couldn’t withstand the final onslaught by naturalists and hobby gardeners who uprooted the final few native wild specimens for their own gardens and collections.

Figure 1. Lady’s-Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium calceolus , in full bloom
Figure 1. Lady’s-Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium calceolus , in full bloom

In 1958, at the height of the concerns over the future of this orchid surviving in the wild, Dr Sledge decided to collect the flower heads at the last known wild habitat to prevent collectors from identifying the site and uprooting the only remaining specimens. This flower, collected in 1958 is now in the Sledge Herbarium at Cliffe Castle Museum, and has over the course of the last 60 years been the source of much controversy (See Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Herbarium Sheet by Dr W.A. Sledge of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid, with label (location info removed)
Figure 2. Herbarium Sheet by Dr W.A. Sledge of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid, with label (location info removed)

An article was published in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society (Volume 62 June 1994 page 231), a couple of years after Dr Sledge’s death in 1991, suggesting that Dr Sledge was wrong to collect this flower and he did so without authority. It even suggested that Dr Sledge should have faced prosecution for his ‘autocratic act’ but that ‘his act was covered-up by conservation officials’ and the author was himself threatened with prosecution for criticising the collecting of the specimen. (N.B. A law was introduced only in 1975 specifically protecting the Lady’s-Slipper Orchid and making its uprooting or destruction a criminal offence.)  The editor of the AGS bulletin was similarly robust in his criticism of Dr Sledge. The article also noted that this orchid root recovered and 18 flowers were counted in 1993. A letter, dated 1962, to Dr Sledge from John Armitage (1900-1996), a Leeds naturalist,  that is in the archives of Bradford Museum, also with a photograph, evidenced that the Lady’s-Slipper orchid was in bloom at the site in that year (See Fig. 3).

Figure 3 Photo of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid in 1962, with text on rear of photo.
Figure 3 Photo of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid in 1962, with text on rear of photo.

 

Figure 3 Photo of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid in 1962, with text on rear of photo.
Figure 3 Photo of Lady’s-Slipper Orchid in 1962, text on rear of photo.

Modern Conservation

The Lady’s Slipper orchid favours a habitat of open woodland on well-drained calcareous soil. The limestone rocks in the Yorkshire Dales offered a perfect home for them. This was the very last habitat these flowers could be found in the wild. They were situated on a fairly steep sloop of grassland over well-drained soil on a base of limestone close to a wood of oak, ash and hazel trees.

This are is now nationally protected, with the Lady’s-slipper Orchid recognised as a Biodiversity Action Plan National Priority Species.

A national programme was introduced in 1992 by English Nature (now Natural England). This Species Recovery Programme includes habitat management and warding. In addition, propagation of this rare flower has been carried out at other suitable sites both within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and nationally. A good site to see this reintroduced species and red squirrels, Sciurus vulgaris, another BAP priority species, is Kilnsey Park.

Hope for the future

Dr Sledge’s specimen, collected in 1958, shows that it was cut and not uprooted (see Fig. 2). This practice would have indeed protected the plant from prying eyes of unscrupulous collectors who may have uprooted the specimen and thus destroyed the last known wild example on mainland Britain. Now, with modern conservation and dedicated conservationists this beautiful flower has been saved and its numbers are increasing in protected sites. With continued support of our conservation and natural heritage bodies and understanding from the public our most rare plant species can be saved for future generations to enjoy.

Amongst others the Lady’s-Slipper Orchid conservation initiative was supported by, Natural England, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

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