Cypripedium farreri, a rare yellow slipper orchid of southwestern China

In the high mountains of southwestern China, if you are either very lucky or well informed, or both, you may come across one of the rarest yellow slipper orchids in the world, Cypripedium farreri. As fate would have it I was indeed lucky enough to see this plant in full flower in its native land on a botanical tour lead by Dr. Holger Perner and his wife Wenqing in June 2013. I now am one of the few people who have laid eyes on this rarity in full flower in the wild – to say the least it was an experience of a lifetime!

Cypripedium farreri is a deciduous terrestrial orchid of open, rocky, grassy slopes of high mountains. It’s overall appearance is much like other members of section Cypripedium, though smaller, and with fewer leaves. The plant’s stature is quite small, with average plants standing no more than 20 cm tall, and large plants only attaining 30 cm in total height. Each pubescent stem carries no more than three (more commonly two) broad elongate to ovate, pleated leaves, borne alternately. In nature plants tend to be single stemmed, but occasionally can boast two growths.

Cypripedium farreri plant
Cypripedium farreri in habitat in northern Sichuan, China. Few have had the pleasure to see this rarity in flower in the wild.

The flowers are typically produced singly, but on occasion plants are double flowered and have a natural spread of 7-9 cm each. The flower’s shape is much like other Cypripediums, especially it’s near cousin C. fasciolatum with one caveat, the pouch is “pulled up” around the lip orifice in such a way as to produce a fluted, vase-like shape. The lip also tends to be rather bulbous at its base and its orifice is narrow and deeply toothed – a characteristic seen also in C. fasciolatum, but much less extreme. The sepals and petals are more or less held flat, with some mild twisting, and are quite broad. The lip’s color is pale cream to a dull yellow and notably lined with vertical maroon bars – another signature trait of this plant. The base color of the sepals and petals is bright green-yellow and all are marked with brick red striping. The staminode is yellow and heavily suffused with dark red as is the interior lip orifice and adjacent areas of its inner lining. The flower’s fragrance is much like lily of the valley.

This is one of the rarest of all lady slipper orchids in the world, with only four known localities, all in the Hengduan Mountains of southwestern China, ranging from northern Yunnan in the south, to northwestern Sichuan, and up to southern Gansu (the type locality) in the north. Its habitat is on rocky scree slopes, often near cliffs, in limestone gorges. In the location I visited in Sichuan it grew away from tree cover even in the flatter reaches of the valley, favoring open areas with a little companion herbage other than short grasses and small shrubby herbs. To my knowledge, this is typical habitat for the species, though some sources say it can be found in open woodlands as well. It can be found at 2600-2800 meters elevation in southern Gansu, and up to 3400 meters in Sichuan and Yunnan.

Cypripedium farreri pair
A pair of plants growing on a patch of turf amidst a limestone scree slope, ~3300 meters elevation.

What can I say about being fortunate enough to see this species in habitat and in flower? For an orchid nut like myself there really are no words for such an experience. Holger lead us up a little valley in a near downpour since the summer monsoon was full on now in late June. Nearly every bit of ground was literally festooned with orchids – Amitostigma, Ponerorchis, Galearis, and Oreorchis species were so numerous that it was an almost meaningless task trying not to step on any. He was being the showman, juicing us up with stories about this plant in Gansu and how we “may get lucky today” and see this rarity in flower for ourselves, much like Farrer himself did almost a century ago. His technique was flawless, and we were almost besides ourselves, looking madly for the find of all finds. Then suddenly, in a rather mundane fashion, a sharp-eyed member of the group, Ron Parsons, said, “hey Holger, isn’t that a farreri over there?” And there it was, a double stemmed plant, each boasting a perfect flower.

Habitat of Cypripedium farreri
The home of Cypripedium farreri in northern Sichuan – a narrow limestone canyon. To guard the safety of this population, I cannot tell you more about its location.

Rather than wait for everyone to get get an obligatory picture of the plant I followed Wenqing up the little limestone canyon to the higher slopes. It was raining quite hard now and the going was tough since there was no trail and we were walking directly up limestone scree. Here and there were clumps of Paeonia anomola ssp. veitchii growing, but no Cypripediums. Then Wenqing called out, “there’s one”, and pointed up slope. I looked in earnest, but couldn’t see anything through the deepening rainstorm. Then someone called out that Peter Maxwell had found another plant. I looked up and saw him literally dangling from a treeless slope a hundred meters away. The rain and all this activity didn’t dampen my resolve, but rather strengthened it. I saw a rocky slope not more than a couple hundred meters distant that looked perfect.

After hopping the cold stream cutting its way down the canyon I found myself at the base of the slope. Fallen rock was everywhere and the going was unstable to say the least. I charged up regardless and quickly saw two lovely plants in near full flower on a somewhat flat perch of turf another 20 meters higher.

The going was getting quite scary now and the rain became even more persistent. Here and there were lovely small clumps of C. tibeticum growing literally out of the scree such that some were half buried by recent slides. Then I saw two more C. farreri growing on a more manageable slope, only I had to cross a very loose section to get to them. I made it after some effort. It was only when I reached the first lovely flower, now covered in raindrops, that I looked back down to the valley floor, perhaps fifty meters below – no time to make a misstep Tom, I told myself. Wenqing caught up with me and continued the search for more plants.

Cypripedium farreri seed pod
Happily, more than one plant of Cypripedium farreri I saw in the wild carried a seed pod from the previous year. I also found several seedlings near adult plants.

Tom Kipfer, my roommate and new friend, came up next and he, being the adventuresome type, scrambled up to the other two plants I’d seen earlier. He cajoled me to come up and I did when he finished. Without a doubt more plants were to be found yet higher up around the craggy limestone cliffs above, but we decided not to risk our necks any more than we had to – instead, he and I followed the little stream up valley, finding more plants here and there – always in the open, growing literally from the cliff itself or in rocky ground.

Later in the day we found three more plants far down the valley in a flat area, one in fact was a double flowered specimen. The rain had stopped as well, and now we had run of the valley – more Cyps were here, especially C. tibeticum and C. flavum, and a lovely pink and yellow Amitostigma unknown to anyone in our group… but that is another story.

To see this rare species in the wilds of Sichuan, check out this video:

This species has one known natural hybrid, C. x wenqingiae; the other parent being C. tibeticum, a common sympatric species with C. farreri. While this combination is somewhat unexpected, it is believed that C. fasciolatum hybridizes C. franchetti in eastern Sichuan as well. The flower looks much like a paler version of C. tibeticum, but otherwise is very similar to that species. The site we visited is one of the few places C. x wenqingiae has been found, with a lone flowering plant being seen the day we were there. It was described by Dr. Perner and named after his wife, Wenqing, based on plants found in Wenchuan County (also the epicenter of the infamous 2010 earth quake). The artificial remake is called C. Wenqing and was registered by Holger and Wenqing in 2012.

Cypripedium Wenqing
The artificial remake of C. x wenqingiae is C. Wenqing and was registered in 2012 by Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, LTD.

Much has been said about this species being just a form of C. fasciolatum. The logic is that intermediate forms of the two seem to exist within the hobby, and so there is much talk of “farreri-like” forms of C. fasciolatum, or visa versa. However, without a doubt, they are distinct, not only in flower form and plant habit, but also in their habitat choice. No known locals have been found where both species are present, in fact, they live in completely different habitats.

C. farreri is a plant of high, rocky limestone slopes while C. fasciolatum is a denizen of moist forests and scrub at much lower elevations – between 1650-2500 meters. C. fasciolatum typically flowers in May in Sichuan while C. farreri is just opening its flowers in late June. Plants of C. farreri retain their small stature in cultivation as well, further demonstrating this species’ distinctiveness.

Like other Cyps of western China, this species demands a long, continuous winter dormancy, unbroken by warm spells, or hard rains. In the winter its native valleys are completely without rain, and even snow in midwinter is infrequent. Summers are cool and moist, and for the most part overcast. As already stated, these plants grow in nearly pure limestone scree on rather severe slopes with little other vegetation.

Cypripedium farreri in cultivation
A cultivated plant of Cypripedium farreri at Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology nursery in Huanglong, northern Sichuan.

So, how does this all add up concerning its cultivation? For a start, a mostly inorganic based compost would be advised. Holger grows his in a mix of perlite and native limey sand with a generous top dressing of conifer needles. The pH shouldn’t drop below 6.5, with 7.0 or even higher probably being optimal. Drainage should be absolutely perfect, especially during dormancy, and plants should be protected from wet conditions as well. While in nature they are found on fully exposed sites, that doesn’t mean they need or want sun in cultivation. Rather, light shade with some morning sun is best. Water generously in summer, and fertilize as you would with other Cyp species – rather dilute applications, but plenty of them while in growth and lots of flushing with pure water in between.

Thankfully, this species is now being propagated by seed with some frequency. At Holger and Wenqing’s nursery in Huanglong we saw many young plants coming along, all seed grown, as well as a large clump with 5 seed pods! Holger said he intends to produce thousands of seedlings in coming years to infuse the hobby with quality, laboratory raised plants. Having said that, it is a sad fact that wild collected plants continue to be sold online, both in auctions and by private nurseries. I cannot stress enough how necessary it is for hobbyists to resist buying such plants – each one literally represents one less plant in the wild and this is a species that cannot withstand much collecting pressure. Beyond that, many of these are poorly collected and handled and even expert growers stand a good chance of losing them after a season or two. Most people will kill them within a single season.

Cypripedium farreri, double
This lovely double stemmed plant was the first find of the day. Few Cyps can rival the beauty of this species in my mind.

If you are interested in getting this species you can try contacting Holger at Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, Ltd. He plans to have flowering sized plants available this year (2013) and assuming he continues to get good germination, plants and flasks will no doubt be available in the future as well. Since plants are limited in number, patience will be needed in getting this species. They have already offered flasks of C. Wenqing in the past. Buying from Holger at least gives you some peace of mind that wild plants were not adversely harmed and that you will receive completely legally sourced material you won’t have to “hide” from others.

This one is as rare and elusive as a slipper orchid gets. I’m thrilled just to have seen them in the wild and now have the great privilege to share my experiences with other orchid nuts like myself. May this rarity grace the rocky canyons of southwestern China for years to come.


2 Replies to “Cypripedium farreri, a rare yellow slipper orchid of southwestern China”

  1. hi there,
    I enjoy watching your explorations of the wilderness of parts of China and Japan immensely, especially in search of wild terrestrial orchids. I wonder if you have ever traveled to Yunnan and encountered Den. hekouense before? and if you have, have you made a video log about your travels?
    Thanks for all you have been sharing.

    1. Ha, ha! No, I’ve not been to Yunnan before, just Sichuan so far. I had to google D. hekouense – newly described (2011). Looks like a real cutie. I hope to get back to China in the not too distant future, but lately my university schedule is kind of in the way. Thanks for reading/watching Botany Boy and I’m glad you are enjoying it. Tom

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