The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden
P. O. Box 3793
Minneapolis MN 55403
A historical review.
Our Cast of Characters
Eloise Butler was a founder of the Wild Botanic Garden and was Curator from 1911 until her death in April 1933. The Wild Botanic Garden was renamed to "Eloise Butler Wild Flower Garden" in her honor in 1929
Martha Crone, was Eloise Butler’s part-time helper and was Curator from 1933 until the end of 1958.
Ken Avery succeeded Martha Crone with the title of Gardener and served until the end of 1986.
Cary George was Gardener from 1987 until the end of 2003.
Susan Wilkins succeeded Cary George as Garden Curator in 2004
The plant records left by Eloise Butler and Martha Crone include 46 species of orchids that were either indigenous or introduced by them. Thirty nine were native to Minnesota, one was an introduction to the State. Those are pictured in this article. Another six were added by Eloise and Martha between 1916 and 1952, but are not found in the State. Those are listed at the end of this article but without photos. The total of 46 could be higher because some of their planting notes simply list a common name such as "coralroot" without indicating a species. The most current scientific name is used here, some of which have changed from earlier days.
The Garden Habitat
The early Garden was a choice place for orchids. Eloise wrote:
“A particular reason for selecting this place was the undrained tamarack swamp, such a swamp being the abode of most of our orchids and insectivorous plants so interesting in habit and structure. Indeed, most lovers of wild plants are bog-trotters and find in the depths of a swamp an earthly paradise.”(1)
Then she added:
“What changes have been wrought by the rapid growth of the city and the onward march of “improvements”! The shy woodland plants are fast dying out on our river banks; the tamarack swamps have been drained, and with the drying up of the water have disappeared the wondrous orchids and the strange insectivorous plants.”(1)
Cary George wrote specifically:
“The decline of the lady’s slippers’ population in the Twin Cities is a sad tale. In the early part of the 1900s Pink Lady’s Slippers, Yellow Lady’s Slippers, and Showy Lady’s Slippers could be found in abundance in what is now the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Stories about young boys digging lady’s slippers in the tamarack bogs and selling them for 50 cents are numerous.”(2)
Eloise had a plan. Since the Garden was to be a reservoir of native species she endeavored to bring in as many as possible. Only eight orchids were indigenous in 1907 when the Garden was founded. By 1911 Eloise listed the orchid inventory at 24 species:
“Of the orchid family, either indigenous or introduced, are now in the garden six species of cypripedium, eight of habenaria, [now Platanthera] Orchis spectabilis, Pogonia, Calopogon, Arethusa, two species of twayblade (Liparis) Aplectrum, coral-root, and three species of rattlesnake plantain.”
“Of extreme interest are the twayblades, cousins of the cypripediums. They have been introduced into the wild garden in Glenwood park and have blossomed faithfully for two successive years. The flowers are bits of fairy gossamer. In one species they are green [Liparis loeselii; the Yellow Wide-lip Orchid]; in the other [Liparis liliifolia; the Brown wide-lip Orchid] they are a trifle larger and of an indescribable shade of mauve. They belong to the genus Liparis. Another genus of twayblades is Listera, not yet represented in the wild garden.”(3)
Those latter ones were Listera convallarioides, Broadlipped Twayblade, and Listera cordata, Heart-leaf Twayblade, and were added in the early 1930s.
There were always a few special ones. She wrote in 1911:
“The greatest prize of the swamp is our state flower, the showy Cypripedium, the pink and white Lady’s-slipper [Showy Lady’s Slipper, C. reginae], a member of the orchid family. No flower, wild or cultivated, is more magnificent than this. The plant is the tallest of the genus and has the broadest leaves and the largest and most beautifully tinted flowers, often bearing two on one stalk.” (4)
Many years later Gardener Cary George would write:
“The wildflower most often asked about by Garden visitors is the Showy Lady’s Slipper. Each spring dozens of inquiries are made about the existence of this wild orchid in the Garden, its cultural requirements, sources of purchase and the legal and ethical ramifications of digging and transporting it. By the time it blooms at the end of May, I must confess, I’m relieved. Yet, when I walk the bog trail each morning to open the back gate, I stop to look at this wild orchid as the morning sun filters through the dewy bog air. Its beauty always amazes me. It must be one of the most magnificent flowers God ever created”
“The Showy Lady’s Slipper has, of course been the official state flower since 1893 - not without some confusion, however. In the original state senate resolution it is called the moccasin flower.” (2)
While initial transplanting success seemed to bless the Curators, long-term survivability was absent. Over and over certain species were transplanted and one can conclude that since space was limited for continuous expansion, they must have kept dying out.
Here are a few examples of how often replanting was done: (‘EB’ is Eloise Butler; ‘MC’ is Martha Crone.) (5)
This last orchid was another favorite of Eloise. She wrote in 1911:
“The sweet fragrance, however, of the tiny Spiranthes cernua an orchid slender as a grass blade, makes one conscious of its presence, and its pearly whiteness intensifies the celestial blue of Bryant’s flower. Most of the orchids are early bloomers. The blossoms of this delicate late-comer are arranged in a curiously twisted raceme, so that it has been given the name ladies-tresses.” (6)
Cary George wrote in 2000:
“Attempts to transplant wild orchids are thwarted by many specific cultural requirements that are virtually impossible to replicate. They have a symbiotic relationship with certain soil fungus called “mycorrhiza.” This relationship is complex and not fully understood. Secondly, transplantation is difficult because small, hair-like feeder roots are usually severed while digging. These roots extend long distances from the crown of the plant are are difficult to even see. So while the plant will appear healthy after transplanting, rot slowly works its way to the crown of the plant through the severed feeder roots. The plant slowly declines and usually dies within three to four years. With a mortality rate of more than 50 percent, it seems the ethical question of whether wild orchids should be transplanted has an obvious answer.” (2)
Back at that time, most wild orchids sold by nurseries were probably dug from the wild. State law specifically prohibited the digging of the Cypripediums. In recent years the nursery trade has learned to grow them commercially (see this article) and that is the only way one can legally acquire the plants.
As late as 1951 in her Garden Inventory, Martha Crone reported 25 orchids growing in the Garden including varieties:
Aplectrum hyemale, Arethusa bulbosa, Calopogon tuberosus, Calypso bulbosa, Corallorhiza maculata, C. trifida, Cypripedium acaule, C. arietinum, C. parviflorum (2 varieites), C. candidum, C. reginae, Goodyera pubescens, G. repens, Platanthera aquilonis, P. lacera, P. psychodes, P. ciliaris, P. clavellata, Liparis loeselii, Malaxis unifolia, Galearis spectabilis, Pogonia ophioglossoides, Spiranthes cernua, S. romanzoffiana.
One of Martha Crone’s experiences:
On May 23, 1937 Dr. Roberts (Roberts, Thomas Sadler, 1858-1946, who wrote Birds of Minnesota) was in the Garden to examine the clump of 24 Ram's head Lady's Slippers that Martha had transplanted from Cedar Forest the previous summer. The clump had 30 blooms. He noted it the finest clump he had ever seen. Martha noted in her report to the Board of Park Commissioners, the reestablishment of the plant after many years of failed effort. She also mentioned success with Calypso (Calypso bulbosa) and commonly known as the Fairy Slipper Orchid, a most beautiful small orchid. (7)
Eloise referred to the Ram’s head as “a comical little boskin, with two horns that readily suggest the popular name.” (6)
On May 25, 1937 W. J. Breckenridge, Director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, was in the Garden to look at the Ram's heads. He later sent Martha a photo of them and noted what a fine clump it was. Unfortunately in 1938 they all died out - according to Martha from an excess of water. She tried again in 1950, '51 and '53. Eloise Butler had introduced the orchid in 1915 and planted it again in 1921, '22 and ’32. (7)
Martha's successor, Ken Avery, also tried his luck planting the Ram's head in 1973. Ken wrote extensively about the troubles with another orchid - the Stemless:
“Last year while at Itasca Park, a friend who lives in Bagley gave us a personal tour of Northwestern Minnesota and at the end of the tour stopped at the Kingsburys to introduce us. The Kingsburys have a rock and gem shop 6 miles north of Bemidji, and I must say an excellent one; but we stopped to see his garden. Mr. Kingsbury grows Pink Stemless Lady’s Slippers and Ram's head Lady’s Slippers with the ease and success most people reserve for petunias. He actually has beds of these impossibly difficult flowers growing and thriving in his lawn. I have never seen anything like it!”
As you might suspect, Mr. Kingsbury turned out to be a very personable, friendly man and when he heard what I did he offered to show me where some of these precious plants were growing if I could come back in the spring. Again, as you might suspect, I went back there this spring (the first weekend in June) and he showed me the place where they grow -- and grow they did! I believe that there averaged a Pink Stemless every twenty feet through the woods (Jack pines) and in a small area there were seemingly hundreds of Ram’s-heads growing. It was unbelievable.”
“We took a sufficient number, and they are now in the Garden and at this time appear to be quite comfortable. I hope that in seeing them growing in the wild and by studying the way that Mr. Kingsbury grows them, I also shall be able to grow them successfully. Incidentally the woods where we obtained these plants is scheduled to be cut or I never would have taken them.”(8)
Ken’s Ram’s Heads and Stemless did not survive either.
Cary George was not going to attempt to re-introduce the orchids but he tried to plant the Stemless. In 1991 he wrote that the ones he had planted in 1989 had diminished to one less vigorous clump and he would no longer attempt to establish plantings of it, so he like all his predecessors saw that you could not keep them established by transplanting from elsewhere. But Cary was willing to try with one more - Orchis spectabilis, the Showy Orchis, that he planted in the spring of 1991 by the front gate, but it did not last many years either. (9)
Today only two species exist in the Garden: The Showy Lady’s Slipper and the Yellow Lady’s Slipper (larger flowered var. pubescens).
Six other orchids not native to Minnesota were also once in the Garden. These are, with introduction date:
Cypripedium fasciculatum - Clustered Lady's slipper - 1949
Cypripedium montanum - Mountain Lady's slipper - 1948
Cypripedium passerinum - Sparrowegg Lady's slipper - 1952
Platanthera blephariglotti var. blephariglottis - White Fringed Orchid - 1913
Platanthera ciliaris - Yellow Fringed Orchid - 1916
Platanthera grandiflora - Greated Purple Fringed Orchid - 1927.
This group has information/photo sheets.
All are native to Minnesota except Helleborine. Only the latter is extant.
1. The Wild Botanic Garden - Early History by Eloise Butler, 1926
2. The Fringed Gentian™, spring 2000, Vol. 48 No. 2
3. Article in the Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Science, September 1911, by Eloise Butler.
4. Eloise Butler, Minneapolis Tribune, June 18, 1911
5. Planting data from Eloise Butler’s and Martha Crone’s Garden Logs. 6. Eloise Butler, Minneapolis Tribune, September 24, 1911. ()"Bryant's flower" is referring to the Fringed Gentian, the subject of Wm. Cullen Bryant’s poem “To the Fringed Gentian” )
7. Martha Crone’s Garden Log and Report to the Board of Park Commissioners dated December 10, 1937.
8. July 1973, The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 22 No. 3 (mis-labeled Vol. 24)
9. July 1991, The Fringed Gentian, Vol. 39 No. 2 (mis-labeled Vol. 41)