China’s Hengduan Mountains are home to a host of endemic lady slipper orchids with Cypripedium bardolphianum being among one of the oddest. This dwarf plant stands at most hand high, and while its flowers are hard to describe as showy, the plant has appeal in many respects nonetheless. Certainly it is more attractive than its moniker would suggest, being named after a warty nosed Shakespearean character. It is one of three species in Section Sinopedilum, all being confined to the mountains of western China.
Cypripedium bardolphianum is a dwarf herbaceous terrestrial orchid of mossy, thin woodlands in high mountain valleys. The plant appears to have an even pair of broad leaves borne opposite to each other, but in fact only one is a true leaf while the other is a oversized floral bract. They are nearly hairless, usually are no more than 5-6 centimeters long each and half again as wide, and grow at ground level. They can be pure green, lightly spotted with purple-black, or flushed with purple (usually near the leaf margins). Growths are produced along a branched, creeping rhizome with new buds initiated several centimeters apart. For this reason they form extensive, loose colonies.
The single flower sits at the end of a short stalk, just a bit taller than the leaves which tend to stand upright during flowering, with the whole plant typically not being much more than 10 centimeters high in total. Since the second “leaf” is in fact the floral bract, the flower is presented unaccompanied at the end of the stalk. The flower is small, around 2 centimeters across, and has a strong, astringent smell. The lip is cup-shaped with the outermost end pointing nearly directly upwards. The lip orifice is depressed giving the flower a bowl-like shape, uncharacteristic for a Cypripedium. The staminode is large and broad. The sepals and petals are quite stout and broad, and all cup around the lip, as though protecting it. The ovary is often adorned with purple hairs along its ridges, especially in dark colored flowers.
Check out this video of Cyps in the wilds of northern Sichuan, China. Plants featured include C. bardolphianum, C. calcicola, C. fargesii, and C. sichuanense… to mention a few.
Flower color is variable depending on the population. Some colonies can have pure yellow lips with green and yellow sepals and petals. Other populations have lips covered in dark purple-maroon tubercles, the sepals and petals being striated and suffused with varying amounts of purple-maroon. Some plants can even have purple-maroon vertical banding on the lip. In the darkest flowers this maroon coloration can seem nearly black. After pollination the flower stalk grows over twice its height during flowering and the seed pod is held at a 45 degree angle to the ground.
This dwarf lady slipper orchid is found solely within the confines of western China, from extreme southwestern Gansu, throughout western Sichuan, to northeastern Yunnan, and also into the immediately adjacent areas of Xizang (Tibet). There may even be populations in the border regions of Myanmar, though none have been recorded to date. This is a plant of high mountain valleys between 2,500-3,500 meters elevation. It is typically found growing in moss in thinly wooded slopes, in gorges, and near mountain streams. It can also be seen growing on travertine formations alongside many other orchids, including Cypripediums, Ponerorchis, Galearis, Amitostigma, and Oreorchis. It is abundant when present with colonies numbering into the many hundreds of flowering growths.
As usual, leave it to Reginald Farrer to think of an unusual name. He discovered this species along with William Purdom in southern Gansu in 1914, and with W.W. Smith described it under the name C. bardolphianum a couple years later. He likened its warty lip to the Shakespearian character Bardolph, known for his poor complexion, especially his warty nose (not to mention his drunkenness and tendency towards thievery). In 1924 Schlechter published the name C. nutans based on material collected by Harry Smith in Huanglong Valley, but this is now considered synonymous with C. bardolphianum. Another form from northern Yunnan, v. zhongdianense, was described by S.C. Chen in 1985 based on very slightly different floral characteristics, and is no longer considered a valid designation by most authorities.
This is one of the first Cypripedium species to flower in the high mountain valleys, starting in mid June and extending into early July. During my trip to northern Sichuan in late June 2013 many plants had already finished flowering, several had already set seed, and none were in bud. It formed extensive, yet loose groupings alongside other Cyps, especially C. flavum and C. tibeticum. The populations we visited were dark colored and tended to have purple flushed leaves. It certainly is a distinctive little thing, not lovely as such, but a plant I’d love to have in my garden. It has a tidy look about it that in a large group would be great alongside some of its larger brethren.
Luckily C. bardolphianum seems to be much more amenable to cultivation in comparison to the “spotted leaf cyps” (Section Trigonopedia), despite their close affiliation. The same is said to be true of C. micranthum as well. Dr. Holger Perner has a huge clump growing at his nursery in Huanglong in northern Sichuan – it is far more vigorous and “clumpy” than wild plants. He has them growing in a mix of native sand (pretty limey), perlite, and conifer needles. Keep in mind they grow in high mountain valleys where the winters are unbroken by warm spells and also are very dry. Summers conversely are very moist, but cool. Plants should be grown in bright shade conditions, as per most other Cyps.
The upshot is that if you want to grow this species you shouldn’t subject it to overly hot conditions in summer, and in winter it shouldn’t (ideally) be subject to above freezing temperatures. Of course that isn’t possible in most regions where orchid enthusiasts live. To succeed with this plant you’ll need a near neutral compost that is free draining and not too high in organics. Non-acidic sand, perlite, baked clay products and the like mixed with a bit coniferous duff seems a likely choice for this species and other Cyps of western China. In winter care should be taken to keep excess rain off them as well.
Finding a proper climate zone is another issue. Any place that experiences cool summers and cold enough winters should suffice. In the eastern half of the USA that would include USDA cold hardiness zones 3-5, and along the Pacific coast, even zone 8 might be appropriate. The same could be said for northern Europe where winters are consistent, but not particularly cold, and summers are cool. I’d guess that folks in warm summer climates, even where the winters are severe, will not have much success with this species.
Beyond the problem of growing this novelty is the issue of finding good nursery stock. Wild plants are offered online to this day, but I wouldn’t expect much from these collected plants. Holger Perner (Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, Ltd) is offering plants as of this writing (fall 2013). They aren’t cheap, but considering the rarity of this plant and the fact that his plants are 100% nursery grown, you can have the satisfaction of buying plants that are at once very healthy, and are not diminishing wild populations. Sadly most vendors selling C. bardolphianum and related species are selling wild collected plants that are highly stressed – buyer beware!
A beautiful little Cypripedium or Bardolph’s nose? Beauty is indeed subjective, but I think most will find this little treasure a neat slipper orchid.