Identification Helps:This is one of the most element of all of Ohio's wildflowers. No other wild plant in the state approaches its remarkable form and color.
Similar Species:There are two or three other Cypripidium orchids or hybrids in Ohio, but none are this size or color.
Preferred Growing Conditions in the Wild:This orchid grows only on calcareous (limy) soils with existing prairie vegetation. It formerly grew in a number of sites in the state, but today it persists only in a few, where the unique soil conditions are still present.
Seasons of Growth and Bloom: This low forb blooms in May and early June.
Natural Distribution in Ohio:The last remaining population of any significance in Ohio is the giant one at the Castalia Prairie in Erie County, perhaps one of the largest in the world. A few small populations may yet persist in the Oak Openings near Toledo, and in a few calcareous valley prairies in the Southwest Ohio Prairie Region.
Description and General Information:This species can grow and persist only on certain prairie soils, where calcareous water seeps upward and where unique fungi are present. These fungi actually provide nutrients to the orchid seeds for a number of years when they remain growing only underground. In the fourth through the seventh year, the seedlings will emerge from the ground and begin to photosynthesize for the first time. The seedlings will grow like this for several more years, accumulating root reserves of carbohydrates that finally will be used to fuel outright blooming and seed production. Because of the unique soil and fungal requirements of the plant, it can never be successfully dug up and planted in a garden. The species must be only observed in its native wild prairie habitat.
The species thrives on frequent prairie fires. In the 1970s and 80s, the Castalia Prairie at the Resthaven Wildlife Area in Erie County was frequently burned. After such spring burns, the sooted landscape irrupts in one of the most awesome floral landscapes in all of Ohio. In one May, after a series of spring burns, over 10,000 (calculated -- not a mere figure of speech) orchid plants were seen in bloom, stretching over 30 acres or more. Today, because prairie fires at the Castalia Prairie are relatively infrequent, most of the orchids persist under the grass duff each spring only in the vegetative form, with few or absent flowers.