Pitcher plant © Harold E. Malde
June is a good month to see some of Minnesota’s most unusual and colorful plants. Minnesota's state flower, the showy lady’s-slipper blooms in June; it is one of Minnesota’s many orchids and the largest of the state’s moccasin flowers.
Moccasin flowers are so-named due to the shape of their blossom that resembles a moccasin or “lady’s slipper.” There are six types of lady’s-slippers in Minnesota and they are probably the best-known of the 49 orchids found in the state. The slipper is the lowermost petal of the flower, enlarged in all orchids to form what is called a “lip” and so large in moccasin flowers that it literally resembles a ballet slipper.
This odd structure is a trap – it attracts insects, usually bees, that enter an opening at its outermost end and are unable to exit except at the flower’s other end. An insect’s travel through the slipper’s interior brings it first against the stigma, where it deposits any pollen it is carrying from another orchid, and then under the anther, where it picks up sticky pollen to bring to the next flower. In this way, the lady’s-slipper’s tiny seeds are started that eventually are dispersed by the wind.
The showy lady’s-slipper is well-named as a big plant can be more than three feet tall and clusters of plants growing together can display dozens of bright pink and white moccasin flowers. Big plants are old plants: it can be three to four years before the first leaves from a germinating orchid seed emerge above ground and possibly as many as 16 years before an orchid first flowers. Other moccasin flowers are the “stemless” or pink lady’s-slipper often found in woodlands in June, the greater yellow lady’s-slipper that is perhaps the state’s most common moccasin flower, and the small white lady’s-slipper that flowers in late May into June and grows in damp prairies.
Orchids like damp – in fact, most of Minnesota’s orchids grow in wetlands and the peatlands in northern Minnesota are among the best habitats for finding orchids. Peatlands are wetlands where slowly moving water containing little oxygen (and often acidic) retards the decay of plant matter that instead accumulates as peat. These boggy settings are widespread in boreal forests and Minnesota has more peatland (estimated at six million acres) than any state other than Alaska.
Orchids are not the only unusual peatland plants. Pitcher plants bloom in June and throughout the summer in peatlands but their flower is not their most interesting feature. These are carnivorous plants that actually trap and consume insects. Their leaves are modified to form a “pitcher;” a vessel that holds water attracting insects. Insects entering the pitcher are unable to crawl out due to downward pointing hairs on the vessel’s sides that prevent escape. They are slowly digested by enzymes and bacteria in the water, providing nitrogen for a plant growing in bogs that are often nutrient-poor. Sundews are another common peatland plant that captures insects – sundews use sticky flypaper-like glandular hairs to catch and hold their prey.
There are many peatlands to visit in Minnesota. The largest are north and east of Upper and Lower Red Lakes in northwestern Minnesota: this is a wild area and anyone exploring on foot must take care not to get lost in these vast wetlands with few landmarks. Red Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area is one of these immense wetlands; a more accessible destination is nearby Big Bog State Recreation Area where a mile-long boardwalk lets visitors see bog plants without getting their feet wet (insect repellent is recommended). Further north, drivers can see orchids along the roadside by traveling the “Lady-Slipper Route” on Highway 11 between the towns of Badger and Roseau. Highway 310 north from Roseau to Canada is also a good route for seeing Minnesota’s state flower from late June through early July.