Medicine, Myth and the Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Posted by KristenM on August 7th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

cypripedium-parviflorum-fl-garyvanvelsir_credit

An old Ojibwe legend tells of a village visited by plague. It was the dead of winter and many died, including the village healer. To save the community, a young girl made a dangerous journey through the snow to find medicine for the sick. She succeeded, but on the way lost her moccasins, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in the snow. When spring arrived, the bloody footprints put forth moccasin flowers—better known today by their Western name, the lady’s slippers.

Origin stories of the lady’s slipper orchid exist among many Native American tribes, and the details change. (Were the flowers yellow or pink? Did she make the journey in place of her sick husband? Did the flowers come from her footprints, or the bandages on her feet?) But at the root lies a more basic question: What was so important about this orchid?

Image: Pink Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Pink Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. (Gary Van Velsir)

Lady’s slippers are some of the most beloved orchids in North America. They’re found in every U.S. state and Canadian province except three (Nevada, Hawaii and Florida). The continent’s 12 species display exquisite colors and patterns, from green-speckled palominos and cream-colored kentuckys to rose-colored queens. But it was not merely their beauty that drew the admiration of Native Americans. They were equally valuable as medicine.

Native Americans relied on lady’s slippers to bring down fevers, cure headaches and ease menstrual cramps and labor pains. The most popular species was the yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum, favored by the Cherokee in Georgia all the way to the Ojibwe in Canada. The Menominee of Wisconsin and the Penobscots of the Northeast also used the pink lady’s slipper. But the orchid’s crowning quality—one that European-descended settlers came to appreciate—was the power to soothe.

Image: Yellow Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum. (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Yellow Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum. (Gary Van Velsir)

Drinking tinctures of lady’s slipper roots was a popular remedy for insomnia, anxiety, or general emotional tension. Native Americans generally collected the roots in the fall or early spring, dried them out and ground them into a powder. (A note of caution—lady’s slipper orchids take years to grow back and are hard to cultivate, so doing this today is highly discouraged.) Since many of the active ingredients didn’t dissolve in water, they often used some form of alcohol instead. Though they weren’t called “lady’s slippers” by the tribes that used them, they were largely restricted to traditionally “feminine” diseases, which included hysteria. Men, wrote plant scholar William Emboden, Jr., by definition could not become hysterical:

“Since hysteria is derived from the root word denoting womb, it is inapplicable to males. The male of the species may suffer madness or instability, but never hysteria.”

Despite its attractive source, the medicine itself could border on revolting. The orchid’s calming powers come from a chemical called cypripedin, a bitter, cinnamon-colored powder in its underground stems. One nineteenth-century writer called it “rather unpleasant” with an odor “not very unlike that noticed when near a herd of swine.” Emboden described the mixture as having “the color of a ruby port and the scent of fecal matter.” Nonetheless, Western doctors prescribed it for hysterics, hypochondria, other “diseases of a nervous character,” and even as relief for symptoms of sexual overindulgence. (Note: Touching lady’s slipper orchids can cause skin irritation in some people. They can also take years to grow back, so it’s best not to try this remedy at home today.)

Image: Kentucky Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium kentuckiense (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium kentuckiense (Gary Van Velsir)

But even as its popularity grew among colonists, the orchid came to take on a more tragic meaning that had nothing to do with its medicinal properties. The clue lies in its common name. Native Americans called it the “moccasin flower,” and for a while most Americans followed suit. But as the nineteenth century progressed, the name shifted to “lady’s slipper,” the term Europeans used across the sea. Poets like William Bryant began using the moccasin flower as a symbol of death, both of people and, on a deeper level, of Native American culture:

Image: Showy or Queen's Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium reginae (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Showy or Queen’s Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium reginae (Gary Van Velsir)

There, I think, on that lonely grave,
Violets spring in the soft May shower;
There, in the summer breezes wave
Crimson phlox and moccasin flower.

Yet there was one exception. In 1879, 16-year-old Elaine Goodale Eastman wrote “The Moccasin Flower,” and made the orchid a symbol of isolation and distant pride:

Yet shy and proud among the forest flowers,
In maiden solitude,
Is one whose charm is never wholly ours,
Nor yielded to our mood:
One true-born blossom, native to our skies,
We dare not claim as kin,
Nor frankly seek, for all that in it lies,
The Indian’s moccasin.

 

Want to help conserve lady’s slipper orchids? Check out the North American Orchid Conservation Center, where ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and organizations across the continent are fighting to preserve North America’s native orchids. To find the orchids nearest you, visit Go Orchids to explore the continent’s 200-plus fascinating orchid species.  

 

 

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