In Search of the Fast Vanishing Lady’s Slipper Orchid

A plant once reported to be abundant in the north-western Himalayas, has now become very rare and elusive due the ever shrinking natural habitats.

I bring to focus a fast vanishing native ‘Lady’s Slipper Orchid’ from the flora of Shimla, Cypripedium cordigerum D. Don more commonly known as the ‘Heart-Shaped Lip Cypripedium’. The word “Cypripedium” is derived from the Latin word Cypris, from Ancient Greek: Kypris, an early reference in Greek mythology to Aphrodite, and Greek: pedilon, meaning “sandal“. The Lady’s slipper orchid group is among the best known and most widely illustrated of all flowering plants on the globe.

This lady’s slipper orchid is Shimla’s rarest and undoubtedly, the most impressive orchid, often referred to as the “Queen of Shimla” along with the even rarer ‘Lady Susan’s Orchid’ (Pecteilis susanne (L.) Lindl.), once commonly found on the grasslands of the BCS spur.

Left: Cypripedium cordigerum (Heart-shaped lip) I Right: Pecteilis gigantea (Lady Susan's) Photos by Dr Vaneet Jisthu and Deep Ram
Left: Cypripedium Cordigerum (Heart Shaped Lip Cypripedium) –  Right: Pecteilis Gigantea (Lady Susan’s Orchid) Photos by Dr Vaneet Jisthu and Deep Ram.

‘Lady’s Slipper Orchid’ is an herbaceous perennial which produces new growths each spring. Each flowering stem usually supports one or two flowers. The strikingly, exotic looking showy flowers have white petals that frame a beautiful bright yellow pouch (photo). The leaves have obvious nerves along their length and are mid-green in colour. It prefers wet substrates in shaded woods and flowers from around the end of April until mid June. This year, surprisingly we (myself and Deep Ram, Forest Guard) found one flowering as late as the second week of July.

This beautiful orchid was once widely distributed at elevations between 2,200 to 3,000 m and has been reported from the temperate Himalayas in northern Pakistan through Kashmir, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal, and southern most Xizang (Tibet) to Bhutan. In India it is reported from the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Kumaon and in Himachal it has been reported mainly from Shimla district (Masohbra, Mahasu, Fagu, Narkanda by Collett during the end of the 18th century and from Jaku by Bambar during 1916. Interestingly, it had also been reported from Nepal by Hamilton and Daviddon as early as 1824 and from China by Tarouca and Schneider in 1922. However, all these reports date back several decades or even a century in some cases. What is its present status? That is the big question that needs to be examined and answered today.

A plant once reported to be abundant in the north-western Himalayas, has now become very rare and elusive due the ever shrinking natural habitats. Today, there are very few locations where this plant is reported upon and the populations too are restricted to very few individuals and widely scattered in distribution. However, even these few locations and population are fast vanishing as the numerous threats like habitat loss and disturbance of its restricted range due to overgrazing, grass cutting, unplanned tourism, deforestation, suppression of natural disturbance regime by erratic weather and the latest to join in is the era of global warming which ensures a continuing decline in biodiversity, including this orchid.

As regards conservation methods, this plant being an orchid is legally protected, because all orchid species are included under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is also listed as rare in the Red Data Book of Indian Plants volume I. Its Category in the IUCN Red List is Vulnerable (VU), which if evaluated now could easily become Critically Endangered (CR).

Management and conservation is essential to ensure for protecting the remaining limited number of individuals. Actions are required to protect the Lady’s Slipper Orchid, both in its natural habitat as well as otherwise. The catchment forest of Shimla is well protected and managed; it is here to initiate long term monitoring based conservation to protect the habitat and further propagate the numbers. Here, it is essential to monitor and regulate the pressure from the grass cutting; buffer areas should be incorporated to help maintain the integrity of this orchid’s habitat. Monitoring programs are required to map the status of existing populations within the catchment forest and on the research part to estimate the population size and study their dynamics. The most important step, however, would be to raise public awareness about this enchanting orchid. One should ponder about the incredible complex adaptation that allows these orchids to thrive. Like in our environment, every single being has a role to play, and each one of us is here for a reason. We need the plants and they need us to help protect and conserve them. Living with flair means really seeing ourselves as a community and knowing why it matters and understand that we are part of each other in this complex web of biodiversity. For mankind to survive we need to ensure the survival of native biodiversity around us too.

I was introduced to this beautiful orchid by Dr. G.S. Goraya*, then Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Shimla, for the first time during May, 2000. Then, it was found in good patches at the Nature Park at Kufri and each year during the month of May, we would visit the site and feast on the striking nature of this orchid, generously taking photographs. However, the habitat was diverted to make a bear enclosure, and thus this location was lost. Over the years, I have been trying to locate this plant but without much success.

The well conserved forest of the Shimla catchment, among the last habitats of the NW Himalayan orchids (Photo by Dr Vaneed Jishtu)
Shimla forest catchment, among the last habitats of the NW Himalayan orchids (Photo by Dr Vaneet Jishtu)

Finally, this year, it took Santosh Thakur and Deep Ram, two enthusiastic foresters from the Wildlife Wing of the State Forest Department, to reveal this beauty to me. Deep Ram, during his round in his beat came across a good patch of their population near Kufri. For him it was eye catching splendour, he took some pictures and posted them on Whatsapp, not realising  the importance of his find. Upon seeing his post, I at once contacted Santosh and Deep Ram and set out to search them in their previous documented habitats in the published floras. Thereafter, we conducted various field trips around Mashobra, Kufri and the Catchment forest and were successful in geo-referencing some sites for further monitoring of this species next year. I would have never noticed these lady slipper orchids without the interest and support of these enthusiastic forest guards. We all must remember that when our friends and neighbours don’t see it, we need to show them. Join hands to conserve this native plant and it could also serve as a flagship species for plant conservation in the region.

*Dy. Director General (Research) Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehradun.

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  1. says: Nodnat

    This is great documentation by Dr Jishtu and Deep Ram and Santosh Thakur. Well done. Perhaps Dr Jishtu could consider further ex situ propagation of these orchids at the Potters Hill arboretum? While threats and pressures on the habitat and niche of these orchids may take a while to abate, if they ever do, efforts at their ex situ conservation must be stepped up many fold and local enthusiasts (SAGES?) and others roped in. The Wildlife wing needs to step in and ensure in situ conservation of these species within and around the Shimla Water Catchment sanctuary. Perhaps one day we can be in a position to re-introduce these vanishing orchids back into the wild?

  2. says: Sanjeeva Pandey

    Congratulations to Santosh Thakur and Deep Ram Ft Guards for this find. And lots of good wishes for Vaneet to maintain the supply of such nice articles about his explorations. Very nice job done.

  3. says: Macy Troy

    The lady slipper orchid (or Cypripedium) is becoming less and less common everyday because people think you can just pick them for fun or for decoration in your house.But these orchids are living things and like us they feel.It is sad to see that such a beautiful flower is disappearing so quickly.

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