This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stem leafy; leaves elliptical, striate-veined. Sepals three, distinct (the two lower not united), linear-lanceolate, the upper oblong-ovate, acuminate; two lateral petals linear; lip as long as the petal, saccate, obconic. Stems usually clustered, flexuous, eight to twelve inches high, lower part sheathed. Leaves three to five, two to three inches long by one-half to one inch wide, sessile, amplexicaul. Flower mostly solitary, with a leafy bract at the base. Segments about equal in length, the upper one as broad as the other four together. (IVood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States.)
THOUGH a person may have but a slight acquaintance with flowers, the one we illustrate will be readily recognized as belonging to the great Orchis family, or, as a botanist would say, to Orchidacea. There is something so odd in the appearance of an orchid flower, and the oddity is so peculiar, that after one has learned to distinguish a few, there is little difficulty in recognizing one of the family whenever it is met with. This natural resemblance is in a great measure the foundation of what is now known as the natural system of botany. In comparatively recent times the number or arrangement of the stamens or of other parts of the flower, decided the class or order to which a plant in question belonged; and this seemed so simple and so easy a way of getting knowledge, that many regretted when the natural system was introduced, and the old artificial systems were set aside. How very artificial some of these systems were, may be understood when the reader learns that under the sexual system of Linnaeus, our plant would be in the class Gynandria, and that in the same class might be found the Passion flower, and the " Dutchman's Pipe" or Aristolochia! Linnaeus himself saw the incon (25) gruous results of these artificial systems. He saw that jumps from a Passion flower to a Cypripedium and similar leaps were so unnatural that in 1751 he wrote, "The natural system is the first and last desideratum in botany. 'Natura non facit saltus,'" that is, Nature does not leap. In pursuance of this idea he mapped out many natural groups, and of these "Orchideae" was one; the name being taken from orchis, which not only represented a very large collection of species at that time, but was perhaps the most ancient of any of the family names. For Orchis is one of those flowers which has a place in heathen mythology. Therein we are told that Orchis was the son of a rural god named Patellanus and the nymph Acolasia. He was one of the most dissolute of the heathen gods, and excited the resentment of one of the priestesses of Bacchus, who stirred up some of the male attendants at the festival of Bacchus to redress the insults offered to her, whereupon they fell upon him, and tore him to pieces. The general verdict of his co-deities was that it "served him right," and he would perhaps have been suffered to lie in oblivion had not his father Patellanus had some influence with the superior gods. And so at the paternal request his dead body was turned into the flower which as "Orchis" still bears his name.
The genus Cypripedium, to which our present subject belongs, was not however known to the ancients. The name was given to it by Linnaeus, and is derived from two Greek words, kypris, one of the names of Venus, and podion, a slipper. Before this time the European species, Cypripedium Calceolus, was known as Calceolus Mariana, or the Shoe of Our Lady the Virgin Mary; and though the name of Linnaeus was new, we see that it may have been suggested by the popular one.
The subject of our present chapter, Cypripedium arietinum, is by no means the gayest of these slippers of Venus. Some have already appeared in our work which the reader will regard as of a handsomer pattern. But this one is in some respects more interesting, and especially because it is the connecting link between Cypripedium and other genera of the great Orchid family. The type of the orchid flower is to have its parts in three-leaved verticils, that is to say, if all the parts were to appear in the gradual rhythmical order we find in so many flowers, we might expect to see a three-leaved calyx, a corolla of three petals, three or six stamens, and perhaps three pistils; but in Orchidae so many of the parts have been remarkably developed, suppressed, or united with other parts, that the student often has to use some ingenuity to discover the original plan. In many orchids, however, the outer whorl of three, forming the calyx of other flowers, can be readily traced; but it is one of the peculiarities of Cypripedium to have apparently but two, because two of the original parts have been united into one. In the species we now illustrate the relation with other genera is somewhat preserved by all the three being separate and distinct. As this union of the sepals into two portions was formerly considered one of the chief foundations of the genus Cypripcdium, some botanists, notably Beck in his " Flora of the Northern and Middle States," one of the earliest systematic works on American botany, made this into a distinct genus on account of its three-leaved calyx, under the name of Arietinum Americanum. The flower differs in general appearance from other American Cypripediums, and suggested to R. Brown, who first described it in Aiton's "Hortus Kewensis," the name arietinum, from the resemblance of the flower, when held in certain positions, to the head of a ram.
This species was not known to the earlier botanists. The earliest note we find of it indicates that it was first discovered near Montreal, Canada, in 1808. But Muhlenberg, who, in 1813, published a catalogue of North American plants, does not include it in his list. Nuttall refers to it in 1818, but still confines it to Canada. Of late years it has been reported from Maine to New York, and is in Parry's lists of Minnesota plants. Prof. Aughey reports it from Nebraska, which is probably its western limit. In all these locations it is believed to be rare, and those who collect it usually regard themselves as fortunate. The writer has never been one of these lucky botanists, and he is indebted for the specimen used in our illustration to the kindness of Professor Sargent, of the Cambridge Botanic Garden, Massachusetts. According to Professor Asa Gray, it has to be looked for in cold swamps and damp woods, flowering about June. It is regarded as the smallest flowered species of all American Cypripediums.