Lady’s Slippers – Cypripedium SPP.: Medicinal Uses of the American Valerian of Wild Plants

Table of Contents

Hardy slipper orchids (Cypripedium SPP.) are presently typically called lady’s slippers. Moccasin flower and “many fine roots” are a couple other folk names for these orchids. The most common Cypripedium around Haliburton, Ontario is yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum). I’ve spotted clusters of them along trails, somewhat hidden in partial shade.

You may also find pink moccasin flower/pink lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium acaule). It’s common in coniferous or mixed woods, usually in shade, and on humus over sand.

Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)
Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)

In Haliburton Flora, a few more species are mentioned. Large yellow lady-s-slipper (C. calceolus) was uncommon in damp mixed woods. The rare white-lipped moccasin flower (M. albiflorum) is was noticed on one lake bank. And Showy lady’s-slipper/queens (C. reginae) was spotted in a tamarack-cedar bog.

Medicinal Uses of Lady’s Slippers

Lady’s Slipper is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Nervous
  • Muscular
  • Reproductive

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Nervine, Sedative, and Stimulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage was the fine roots used for a nerve medicine. Another folk name is “American valerian”. Although namesake common valerian is a stronger nerve root. However, herbalists picked pink lady’s slipper to near extinction in the mid-1900s. While you may be able to find nursery divisions and grow your own, herbs to use instead include common valerian and skullcap, both covered here recently at Song of the Woods. Other important nervines include but aren’t limited to lemon balm, oats, medicinal poppy, and passionflower.

All species of lady’s slipper are said to be equally medicinal despite pinks former popularity. And you may still find it in some uncommon herbal medicines, like mixed with Lobelia species for pneumonia. Hopefully sustainably sourced!

Both herbalists and foragers have smartened up about our impact on native flora and fauna. I recommend groups like United Plant Savers and books like Planting the Future (you’d recognize many of the herbalists that worked on that book!) Foraging experts like my favourites Sam Thayer and Alexis (The Black Forager) are also speaking out on being good stewards of the plants we love. I’m happy to see it! I have also noticed Master Gardening groups getting informed on issues like natives and invasives. All of these plant lovers are making a positive difference for native plants now – when too often in the past we actually hurt our native plant populations and the wildlife that need them. Hopefully any hold outs will come around and our wildlife and local biodiversity ultimately will be preserved.

Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)
Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) hiding beneath white cedar

Growing Cypripedium SPP.

Unfortunately, Ontario’s most common orchid is Broad-leafed Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). It’s an invasive orchid from across the ocean that lines many local trails through the woods. Native pink, yellow, and showy lady’s slippers come in next though. As pictured, they can often be a bit disguised and hard to spot. Some are lucky enough to have massive patches of them.

There are nurseries with plants they divide to sell sustainably. So, you may be able to find an ethical source for lady’s slippers. I’ve seen them in the woods for sure, but also in the middle of a maintained flower patch, and along the road – they are hard to propagate but make up for it a little in not being too picky. If you have a patch, small bees and some flies will visit. Some will get trapped. There’s an invasive European skipper butterfly that especially gets trapped in these flowers and unfortunately this can prevent pollination. And our many (too many at times!) deer eat them up as well. We are lucky these orchids are still here despite all this imbalance humans have caused!

Ontario has many types of orchids. It wasn’t until I found a frog orchid (Dactylorhiza viridis) that I looked orchid species up as a whole and was surprised to find over 60 species observed in Ontario on iNaturalist. Some of them have only a few to a dozen observers on iNat.

For a while I played Lord of The Rings Online, and one deed there was to find various orchids in a maze of woods. Finding orchids here always reminds me of that. Getting your lifers for spotting our local orchids is one of the more intense treasure hunts.

WARNINGS

Can cause hallucinations in large doses.

Fresh plant can cause contact dermatitis.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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REFERENCES

https://data.canadensys.net/vascan/taxon/1070?lang=en

https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/yl_ladyslipper.htm

wiki/Cypripedium

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

A Modern Herbal (Volume 2, I-Z and Indexes)

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