Q) I saw a pink lady slipper recently at an orchid nursery that was nothing like anything I’d ever seen before. The plant tag reads P delenatii. What is this? Cameron B.
A) True species, or naturally occurring orchids, are some of the most recognizable flowers in nature. The blossom and sometimes foliar traits are unlike any other plant. A plant tag is not necessarily required in order to identify such an orchid, although it may be helpful in ascertaining nuances in the breeding.
In this case, the orchid in question is Paphiopedilum delenatii, which is native to Vietnam. Once extremely rare, this lady slipper now adorns thousands of orchid collections around the world, thanks to an unlikely series of events that occurred almost a century ago. While touring North Vietnam in 1913, a member of the French Army gathered a small number of these tiny orchids and brought them back to Europe. Only one plant survived and was given to the French orchid firm, Vacherot and Lecoufle, who managed to keep the botanical novelty alive and self pollinate the blossom.
A single orchid seed pod may contain a million seeds. It is not known how many plantlets initially germinated in the Paris laboratory but the strongest were further propagated by self pollination or cross pollination. This selection process was repeated several times and within just a few short decades, P delenatii was available for everyone.
Superior strains of all orchid species are created by cross pollinating two fine varieties – with the hope of obtaining the best traits of both parents. Essentially a genetic experiment, the results can be very impressive. Only the strongest seedlings are selected – thus creating a gene pool of vigorous and easy to grow plants. The favored flowers are typically the largest, most colorful, and longest lasting.
Such is the case of P delenatii which today is considered an easy to grow and bloom plant. The small leaves are rarely longer than 8” and have a lovely dark green variegated appearance. The flowers are only 3” wide but often come in pairs and have pouches of a soft pink hue – commonly lasting two months. Their blooming time in North America is winter.
There are more than 70 species of Paphiopedilums found throughout the world – mostly in Asia – with new ones still being discovered. These terrestrial orchids grow on the forest floor and therefore require indirect light – thus making ideal houseplants. In addition, there aren’t any pseudo-bulbs to store water so the roots cannot be allowed to dry out. Paphs are best grown by not dividing them – thus allowing them to become specimens with many flowers.
P delenatii is considered a success story in conservation because just a single plant resulted in the distribution of tens of thousands of seedlings across the globe. For more information about this charming genus, contact your local grower, the American Orchid Society www.aos.org or the Slipper Orchid Alliance slipperorchid.org