A Mythical Flower

Lady’s slipper

Rare and funny, Lady’s slipper (or Cuckoo’s slipper) is good at playing hide and seek. From the eighteenth century it appeared in botanical publications to then vanish into a long silence denying its existence in the Pyrenees. Those striving to follow its trail must juggle fact and rumour. As an object of desire, it has aroused the curiosity of the most experienced botanists and fed the imagination of the most knowledgeable of enthusiasts. The Calypso orchid, the slipper, is considered a mythical flower to be seen «once in a lifetime». This is the aim of 1,500 people yearly visiting Aragón to observe orchids with individual and collective challenges that far exceed the limits of botany.

Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) is an orchid found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. France and northern Spain, where it is quite rare, are the western frontier of its distribution in Europe. Protected nationally, it is considered an endangered species in most of Europe.

«It is no longer under the shadow of doubt: the largest orchid of our flora grows in the Pyrenees! Current data have rekindled research, and everyone would like to find it in their area»

Every year the National Botanical Conservatory of the Pyrenees and the Languedoc Roussillon registers a dozen related phone calls. Invariably, eager visitors want to know where it grows in the French Pyrenees. Conservatory staff have difficulties satisfying these requests, which are often passionate, emotional and sometimes obstinate. In effect, rare and funny, Lady’s slipper plays hide and seek in the Pyrenees. From the eighteenth century, those following its trail must assess real sightings and existing rumours. And the fairy slipper has everyone running! The Calypso orchid flower is an object of desire and to see one is considered «the achievement of a lifetime».

Ethnobotany, a discipline studying the relationships between people and plants, sees in this flower an original object of study. Rather than the folklore surrounding it, we look at the contemporary imagination stirred up by this flower, how it is perceived and the various challenges it poses.


A botanist from the Conservatory explained: «Since the early 1950s nobody has seen the slipper on the north side of the mountain range, except in the eastern Pyrenees. Our research has focused on areas with potential or historical information on this orchid. This is where the confusion starts: those who have seen Lady’s slipper, those who claim to know a person who has seen the orchid and so on. On two occasions collective searches have been organised in the Pibeste, in the Hautes Pyrenees, where a Lourdes photographer claimed to have seen, photographed and displayed one in the town’s drugstore». One must bear in mind that the seekers concerned are a score of people from the Conservatory and from the National Park of the Pyrenees, entities that are particularly motivated to find this rare, protected and almost «historic» plant in their territory.

«In fact, it was all a big misunderstanding; these orchids had never been found –the botanist goes on to explain–. And then one day, at the foot of the Pibeste, I met a man who regularly photographed orchids and went to talk to him. The conversation moved on to the slipper and I learned that it was he who had taken the picture of Lady’s slipper! But, in fact, he never actually saw it in the Pibeste. After photographing it somewhere else, he had done the same as other people and talked to a forest-guard, who claimed that these orchids also grew in the Pibeste. So the story went round and round: he had seen a Lady’s slipper in the Pibeste. But it wasn’t true!».  There is a long list of anecdotes like this, confusing researchers, who get lost in a lot of unverifiable or unverified data.


Hence, to get a clearer vision, we need to trace hearsay back to the original data sources. Because if Lady’s slipper is –in fact– «conspicuously absent», the guides on flora and botanical papers have followed its trail for quite some time. Herein we analyse the data collected on the north side of the Pyrenees.

In 1783, it is cited by Pourret in the Venteillole Laurenti (Ariège). In 1789, Saint-Amans mentions a location in the Piquette d’Endretlis (Hautes Pyrenees). Later on, in 1792 Ramond of Carbonnières, based on this information, seeks the plant to no avail. Thereafter, Lapeyrouse, Grenier and Godron, Dulac, among others, include some as yet unverified references in their works.

Photographers seek an idyllic picture of the fairy slipper with the snowy peaks in the background. / © R. Garreta/CBNPMP

In 1879, almost a hundred years after the first written record of Lady’s slipper in the Pyrenees, Jeanbernat and Timbal-Lagrave turn the situation around. Not only do they disregard a long series of data transcriptions, but even classify Cypripedium calceolus as a «widespread species in the Pyrenees». This is a new trend that prevails in the literature. After a century of literature, Lady’s slipper falls under suspicion for a hundred years. In 1901, Bubani doubts that it is an autochthonous plant. In 1919, the priest Father Coste says he has never seen the slipper in the Pyrenees. In 1931 Durafour studies Cypripedium distribution in the French mountains and writes «it doesn’t seem to exist in the Pyrenees at all».

In Spain, on the south side of the Pyrenees, the story is very similar. In 1983 –exactly two centuries after Pourret’s papers– Lazare, Miralles and Villar surprise everyone when referring to the discovery of two new locations: one in Catalonia and one in Aragon.

On the French side, in June 1990, a photograph of the flower appears in the L’indépendant newspaper (Languedoc-Roussillon). Thanks to this photo a team of botanists immediately began to follow the trail. They found two populations in the upper valley of Tec and gathered testimony of a third population in this area, failing however to find it.

It is no longer under the shadow of doubt: the largest orchid of our flora grows in the Pyrenees! Current data have rekindled research, and everyone would like to find it in their area. Scientific obstinacy? Botanical glory? A taste for rarity? A passion for orchids and for this one in particular? Financial interests? There are many reasons encouraging professional and amateur botanists to seek out Lady’s slipper.


Of all locations in the Pyrenees, Sallent de Gállego, in Aragon, is perhaps the most remarkable for its size, for the originality of the conservation methods applied, for the number of visitors each year and for all the attractions it offers. Interest in Lady’s slipper goes beyond the world of orchids, botany and conservation of rare and endangered species. The fairy slipper has certainly attracted much interest, both personal and collective.

In Sallent de Gallego, during the flowering period, Lady’s slipper is under a guard’s protection. The fact that there are guards taking care of a flower arouses great curiosity, which also becomes a photographic subject for visitors. / © R. Garreta/CBNPMP

A flower under surveillance

Between Sallent and Formigal in a makeshift car-park along the roadside, a guard comes to meet you, a staff member of the Colectivo Foratata, an environmental education company commissioned by the Government of Aragon to control the area, to register specimens of Lady’s slipper and to inform the public. Throughout the flowering period, the slipper is under the guards’ protection. But they do not act as security officers; the guards are curators or informers who spend most of their time informing visitors about ecology in general and threats affecting Lady’s slipper in particular: habitat transformation, specimen collection, excessive trampling of an area, and so on.

All comments are forwarded to the Government of Aragon’s Department of Environment. In parallel, different institutions carry out scientific studies to better understand these orchids in all their aspects. Knowledge, information and awareness have become the keywords of the implemented conservation methods. In 2008 about 1,500 people were able to admire the results!

The thrill

What first strikes you when joining a group of visitors is their excitement. Endless compliments. Cries of joy. Many gather around the flower mesmerised, others are unable to overcome their astonishment. Sometimes tears are shed. One must understand that for many people, the encounter with Lady’s slipper is the culmination of a search, a face to face encounter with a «myth».

Meanwhile, park guards explain a myriad of stories, ever more amusing or surprising, like the time a wedding party posed for photos splendidly surrounded by orchids or the case of an alternative practitioner who wanted to «energise» the water in contact with the flowers. Of course, some are indifferent or disappointed by specimens that bloom on the roadside, but this is a small minority.

«Interest in Lady’s slipper goes beyond the world of orchids, botany and conservation of rare and endangered species»

The pilgrimage

Since 2001, thanks to word of mouth, the number of visitors has steadily increased. At first more than half were French. It was an expert audience, members of orchid-enthusiast or naturalist associations often making the same journey every year. «Twenty years have passed since I came here for the first time to see the Lady’s slipper –a visitor explained–. I was here before the guards! Previously, one could go into the forest, which is forbidden now, as it is where the most beautiful specimens grow. For me it’s like a ritual. It’s a real pleasure to see these orchids every year. I find it relaxing. I would hate them to disappear. It’s a kind of conservatism. That’s why this year I’m bringing my grandchildren, because I would like this to continue. Yes, it’s like an initiation rite. It’s more than that, it’s a tradition».

«Inheritance» and «tradition» are recurring words in the visitors’ testimony. Visiting Lady’s slipper becomes a compulsory route, a reference in time. Each year, enthusiasts return to the site, some with their children, others with a couple of friends… and thus many people are chosen to join the small group of followers of Lady’s slipper. As if they need to see for themselves the survival of the orchid population, as if it would not survive on its own in the memory of its fans. The slipper really seems like an apparition, a spectre only to be attested through personal experience. For this public, the orchid holds a special place. Dedicated collectors can contemplate «the largest and most beautiful of all our orchids». So they «collect» outings to Sallent de Gállego, given that they cannot collect the Lady’s slipper itself.

Lady’s slipper has inevitably become an object of desire for nature photographers. But the aim is not just capturing reality; a plant located on the roadside may look like an inaccessible wild flower if taken from the right angle. / © R. Garreta/CBNPMP


The aesthetic facet is strongly present in everything about the slipper, but together with the actual fact of seeing the flowers –of being privileged witnesses of their existence– to photograph them becomes essential. Photography has replaced collection and represents a new form of capturing nature. But one must further capture the rare moment of encounter with the flower and be photographed beside it, capturing an extraordinary moment as well as an intimate relationship. Disposable or digital cameras, mobile phones, all means are good to take one, ten, fifteen pictures of Lady’s slipper.

Enthusiastic photographers are capable of spending hours next to an orchid specimen, waiting until the light is perfect. To take a beautiful picture of Cypripedium poses a personal challenge: we must know how to handle the contrast of colours in the flower, with the shadows and lights of its natural medium. But the aim is not to capture reality: perpetuating the myth of a wild and inaccessible flower, photographers seek an idyllic picture of the fairy slipper with the snowy peaks in the background. But to capture reality so partially, you have to turn your back to the road, with its cars rushing by and turn a blind eye to the Formigal ski resort blocking the horizon.

A politically correct flower that attracts the tourists?

Formigal ski resort is just one of the forces behind the local economy and its development has led to radical changes in the environment. On the one hand, a ski resort has been built, on the other, a plan to protect an endangered plant species has been implemented and its protection is financed. Faced with economy versus environment, environmentalists are sceptical. However, for most visitors, the measures taken by the Government of Aragon to protect the flower are exemplary. The landowners and local authorities are more cautious: the presence of a protected species on their land may hinder the sale of plots. However, the idea that the slipper may become a tourist attraction is also emerging.

A few kilometres away, shops sell postcards of the flower. And up to a point Lady’s slipper has its own clientele: groups of hikers and naturalist associations stop along their routes to see the flower. Moreover, its audience has grown, now it is no longer just French and Spanish, but European, and also includes holiday-makers, people passing through the area who hear or read news about the slipper and its guards on the Internet, in newspapers or on television. In fact, media coverage renews interest in the Lady’s slipper each year, and journalists have made it a topic of summers in Aragon.

Admirers of Lady’s slipper almost worship it. Lady’s slipper has become a real tourist attraction in the area. / © R. Garreta/CBNPMP

The flower of Sallent

So many protective measures, the presence of guards, the arrival of tourists, raising awareness in schools, press releases… all in all valley residents are becoming interested in this slipper, which attracts so many admirers. First suspicious, then curious, they have made it theirs and talk of «our flower». In their own way they do not let it out of their sight, and gradually it has come to occupy a place in village life. It has really become a remarkable and shared element of the Tena Valley’s natural heritage, to the point of becoming one of its emblems.

The French area has been somewhat marginalised. Professional and amateur botanists take comfort in the fact that they have become familiar with this location since it was discovered and that, after so long, they feel at home in Sallent, returning each year to renew this idealised appropriation of the species. And on the north side of the mountain range this elusive Orchid is still being sought…

The enthusiasm aroused by Lady’s slipper goes beyond botany. It is the focal point of many personal and collective dreams and interests. It is the object of novel ecological measures that combine conservation and awareness. An object of study for natural sciences, it is likewise a focus for ethnobotanical research given the fascination it generates. Capturing media coverage, it has acquired a political role and become a tourist attraction, thus gaining economic significance and turning into a sign of identity. A mystery, an «apparition», a closely guarded flower, admirers, pilgrimages… a modern myth whose roots are deeper than you might think.

Bubani, P., 1902. Flora pyrenaea per ordines naturales gradatim digesta. Volumen 4. Ulricus Hoelpius. Milan.
De Saint-Amans, J. F. B., 1789. Fragment d’un voyage sentimental et pittoresque dans les Pyrénées. [Suivi de :] Le bouquet des Pyrénées ou Catalogue des plantes observées dans ces montagnes pendant le mois de juillet et d’août 1788. Devilly. Metz.
Jeanbernat, E. & E. Timbal-Lagrave, 1879. Le massif du Laurenti (Pyrénées françaises). Géographie, Géologie, Botanique. Asselin. Paris.
Juanchich, M. et al., 1991. «Cypripedium calceolus L. (Orchidaceae) dans la partie orientale des Pyrénées françaises». Le Monde des Plantes, 442: 19-20.
Lazare, J. J. et al., 1987. «Cypripedium calceolus (Orchidaceae) en el Pirineo». Anales del Jardín Botánico de Madrid, 43(2): 375-382.
Ramond de Carbonnières, L., 1931. Carnets pyrénéens (1792-1795). Premier carnet. Tome 1. Editions de l’échauguette. Château Fort de Lourdes.

© Mètode 2012 - 72. Online only. Beloved Botany - Winter 2011/12

Directora de projectes etnològics en el Conservatori Botànic Nacional dels Pirineus i del Migdia-Pirineus. Membre associat del LISST-Centre d’Antropologia Social (Tolosa de Llenguadoc).