Slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum barbatum)

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderOrchidales
FamilyOrchidaceae
GenusPaphiopedilum (1)
SizeStem height: up to 35 cm (2)

Paphiopedilum barbatum is listed on Appendix I of CITES (1).

The scientific name of this particularly handsome orchid is very appropriate; pedilon is the Greek word for slipper and Paphos is a town in Cyprus, the favourite island of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty (3). ‘Slipper’ refers to one of the petals, called the lip, which forms a shoe-like structure that is deep purple at the tip, turning paler towards the base (2). The other petals of the flowers are greenish-white, blending into purple veins towards the edge, and the margins bear small hairs and small, blackish warts (2). The pointed, green, mottled leaves of Paphiopedilum barbatum measure 10 to 15 centimetres in length (2) (3), and each stem bears just one or occasionally two flowers (2).

Paphiopedilum barbatum occurs on Mount Ophir in Sumatra, where it was first discovered (3), and in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia (2).

Paphiopedilum barbatum grows in granite rock crevices containing moss and decaying leaves, in shaded valleys at elevations around 1,000 metres. It inhabits areas where plentiful rainfall and high humidity ensure that the roots are always moist (2).

The colour, patterns and structure of Paphiopedilum barbatum flowers, which appear in spring (2), have all evolved to attract insect pollinators (3) (4). An insect, lured to the attractive flower, will be guided by the colourful markings and ridges to the shoe-like lip (3). The inside walls of the lip are slippery and so the only way out for the insect is via a ladder of hairs that takes the insect past the stigma where pollen is deposited (3) (4).

After pollination, the petals fade, the stigma closes up, and the ovary begins to swell. The ovary gradually develops into a green pod that turns yellow as it matures. When mature, the pod bursts open to release powdery, almost microscopic seeds that are so light they can be carried on air currents for hundreds of kilometres (3).

Wherever the tiny seeds lands, they will only germinate if a certain fungus is present. The thread-like strands (or hyphae) that make up the fungus penetrate the orchid seed, and the seed then begins to digest the hyphae, thus gaining the nutrients required for growth (5).

The stunning flowers and the relative rarity of slipper orchids make them highly attractive to orchid collectors and growers (6). While trade in wild Paphiopedilum barbatum is now prohibited, illegal collection and trade remain a potential threat (6). Due to their specific habitat requirements and dependence on a specific fungus, slipper orchids are also very vulnerable to any disturbance or modification of their habitat (5), although it is not known whether the habitat of Paphiopedilum barbatum is specifically threatened at present.

All Paphiopedilum species are listed on Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This listing prohibits the trade in wild-collected plants, but allows trade in artificially propagated plants (6). Paphiopedilum barbatum is perhaps the most common Paphiopedilum species cultivated in thelowlands of Malaysia and Singapore, and it has also been extensively cultivated in Europe (3). Such cultivation should hopefully reduce pressure on this striking orchid in the wild.

For further information on the conservation of orchids see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. CITES (June, 2007)
    http://www.cites.org
  2. Bennett, K.S. (1984) The Tropical Asiatic Slipper Orchids. Angus and Robertson Publishers, London.
  3. Soon, T.E. (2005) Orchids of Asia. Times Editions Marshall Cavendish, Singapore.
  4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (May, 2008)
    http://www.kew.org/scihort/orchids/index.html
  5. Cribb, P. (1989) The exclusive life of the slipper orchid. New Scientist, 122(1670): 50 - .
  6. McGough, H.N., Roberts, D.L., Brodie, C. and Kowalczyk, J. (2006) CITES and Slipper Prchids: An Introduction to Slipper Orchids Covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.