Orchid Conservation International Lecture

In search of Aphrodite's slippers

A personal account of the lady's slipper orchids

Phillip Cribb

Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

2pm, 29 November 2008

To reserve a place, contact Hassan Rankou

Entry £10 on the door

All proceeds to Orchid Conservation International

Lady's slippers or slipper orchids comprise only a small fraction of the world's orchid flora: some 180 species out of a total of 25000 species. However, this charismatic group has attracted the interest and passion of many of the leading orchid growers and scientists for the past 150 years or more.

I was first attracted to lady's slippers when I was appointed as Kew's representative on the Nature Conservancy's (now English Nature) Cypripedium Committee, a group of ten people that looked after the sole remaining native plant of Cypripedium calceolus "some where in the North of England". From that point on, now over 30 years ago, I was hooked and have studied and searched for these elusive orchids all over the world from the south-west Pacific islands of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, throughout south and south-east Asia across to the tropical Americas, Mexico and North America.  

Despite their popularity, the discovery of new species continues at a steady rate of about two per year, especially in the Far East and in the tropical Americas. Some have proved to be sensational plants, amongst the most spectacular of all orchid species.

This has kept the profile of slipper orchids high in the horticultural world. Since slipper orchids tend to grow in very specific habitats and in small colonies, rarely exceeding a thousand plants, their horticultural popularity has made them amongst the world's most threatened plants. Even today new species are almost exterminated as soon as they are discovered.

Scientific knowledge of slipper orchids has also grown dramatically in recent years since the advent of DNA analysis.  We now understand the evolutionary relationship of the slipper orchids themselves, their relationship to other orchids (indeed, some doubted if they were orchids), and their antiquity. Field work has elucidated their life cycle, pollination biology and population biology.

The regenerative power of some over-collected species in the wild, together with recent advances in the propagation of slipper orchids from seed and the ease with which many can be cultivated, suggests that the future of some of the rarer species is not as bleak as we once thought.