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Cypripedium is a genus of 47 species from the orchid family (Orchidaceae) and the sole genus of the subtribe Cypripediinae.
Its members are terrestrial hardy orchids that grow primarily in colder climates of the Northern Hemisphere, in North America, Europe, and Asia. Some grow in the tundra in Alaska and Siberia, which is an unusually cold habitat for orchids. They can withstand extreme cold, growing under the snow and blooming when the snow melts. But, in the wild, most have become rare and close to extinction, due to an ever shrinking natural habitat and overcollection. Only a single plant of Cypripedium calceolus has survived in Britain.
As with most terrestrial orchids, the rhizome is short and robust, growing in the uppermost soil layer. The rhizome grows annually with a growth bud at one end and dies off at the other end. The stem grows from the bud at the tip of the rhizome. Most slipper orchids have an elongate erect stem, with leaves growing along its length. But the Mocassin Flower (Cypripedium acaule) has a short underground stem with leaves springing from the soil. The often hairy leaves can vary from ovate to elliptic or lanceolate, folded along their length. The stems lack pseudobulbs.
The inflorescence is racemose. It can carry one to twelve flowers, as in Cypripedium californicum. But most species have one to three flowers. There are three sepals, with, in most species, the two lateral ones more or less fused. The flower has three acute petals with the third a striking slipper-shaped lip, which is lowermost. The sepals and the petals are usually similarly colored, with the lip in a different color. But variations on this theme occur. The aspect of the lip of different species can vary a great deal. As with all orchids, it is specially constructed to attract pollinators. The flowers show a column with a unique shieldlike staminode. The ovary is 3-locular (with three chambers).
The genus has a long history of use, dating back 2500 years to the Far East, where they were used medicinally. The roots of species such as Cypripedium parviflorum contain Cypripedin a chemical used as a antispasmodic, nervine, sedative, and tonic. Other species such as Cypripedium guttatum stems are used for soup in China. Dried Cypripedium macranthos flowers were crushed into powder and used to stop bleeding.
Cypripediums generally grow in partial shade with a humidity of 30 to 70%. Summer temperatures are usually 18° to 25°C while winter temperatures are 10° to -2°C. Most plants must in 4°C for around 3 months in the winter. Plants should have a well ventilated and well drain mix. Common items used for the mix are sand, clay, silt, pumice, gravel, fir bark, lava rocks, pine needles, and perlite. The mixture is dependant on the species.
If plants are grown in Mediterranean areas which do not have cold winters, they should be stored in a refrigerator for vernalization for around three to six months depending on the plant. Temperatures of refrigeration should be at least 4°C and the potting media should be kept moist and the plant should be checked regularly.
Common names include slipper orchids, Lady's Slippers, mocassin flowers, camel's foot, squirrel foot, steeple cap, Venus' shoes and whippoorwill shoes
The following genera have been brought into synonymy with Cypripedium:
Comparison between a DNA-analysis and the morphological characteristics in this genus has shown that there is a high degree of divergence between the two, probably due to long periods of isolation or extinction of intermediate forms. The Eurasian species with yellow or red flowers form a distinct group from the North American species with yellow flowers. The Pelican Orchid (Cypripedium irapeanum) and the California Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium californicum) are probably the first diverging line. They share several similarities with their sister group Selenipedium. The Cypripedium genus has been divided into 11 subsections.
- Section Subtropica
- Section Irapeana
- Section Trigonopedia - Contains plants with single flower and with spotted leaves
- Section Enatiopedilum
- Section Cypripedium
- Subsection Cypripedium
- Subsection Macrantha
- Section Obtusipetala
- Section Acaulia
- Section Retinervia - Contains plants with multiple small flowers.
- Section Bifolia
- Section Flabellinervia - Plants have fan shape leaves and a specific lip shape
- Section Arietinum
- Cypripedium × alaskanum (C. guttatum × C. yatabeanum; Alaska).
- Cypripedium × andrewsii (C. candidum × C. parviflorum var. pubescens) (E Canada, NC & NE U.S.A).
- Cypripedium × catherinae (C. macranthon × C. shanxiense; Russian Far East).
- Cypripedium × columbianum (C. montanum × C. parviflorum var. pubescens; W Canada, NW U.S.A)
- Cypripedium × froschii (C. tibeticum × C. yunnanense; Yunnan, China)
- Cypripedium x herae . (C.parviflorum x C.reginae) (Manitoba, Canada)
- Cypripedium × ventricosum (Russia to Korea).
- Cypripedium × wenqingiae (C. farreri × C. tibeticum; China).
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