After 50 years alone, Britain's rarest wild flower has a daughter

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The Independent Online

The lady's slipper orchid, Britain's rarest and most spectacular and wild flower, of which there has been just one in the wild for the past 50 years, has given birth to a daughter.

The lady's slipper orchid, Britain's rarest and most spectacular and wild flower, of which there has been just one in the wild for the past 50 years, has given birth to a daughter.

The seedling, grown in the laboratory and re-established in the countryside, has flowered for the first time - 11 years after it was planted at a secret site in the North of England.

The event is a milestone in the efforts to bring back the exotic purple and yellow bloom, which was virtually wiped out by Victorian plant collectors. It also marks the culmination of a long partnership between English Nature, the guardians of the plant in the wild, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is an outstanding achievement in the struggle to bring back from the brink critically endangered wild species in Britain.

"We are absolutely delighted," said Sue Ellis, spokeswoman for English Nature. "The lady's slipper is an enormous symbol of conservation for us. It's our giant panda."

The plant - which first flowered on 19 June this year, although no news of the event was released - was germinated from seed in 1987 and planted out in the wild in 1989.

It has taken so long because the orchid grows very slowly. But it also lives long - usually for more than 100 years. In parts of Europe, experts report that some plants are older than the forest trees growing around them.

Ian Taylor, the English Nature botanist responsible for the orchid, said: "It's expecting to be there for a century or so. So it's not a plant that rushes into anything."

The lady's slipper, Cypripedium calceolus, has evidently been a victim of its own stunning beauty and has too often prompted an irresistible urge to pick it. In his book, Britain's Rare Flowers, Peter Marrende describes the orchid as "a golden clog or slipper held in the grasp of four purple banners", adding: "It looks like some archetypal jungle plant, or the sort of thing a Romantic poet might invent after a session on the opium."

The flower was dug up in huge numbers by Victorian gardeners and by 1917 was thought to be extinct in Britain. But in 1937, a single plant was discovered growing in the wild, on private land in the North, and it has been closely guarded ever since. During its summer flowering season, it was watched constantly to protect it from collectors.

But English Nature (then the Nature Conservancy Council) finally decided that mere guardianship was not enough and launched its Species Recovery Programme in 1986. Thus, with the help of Kew Gardens, an ambitious, long-term attempt was begun to restore a healthy population of lady's slippers to the wild.

Natural pollination, usually performed in this case by an uncommon type of bee, was unreliable, so the plant has been pollinated by hand, while Kew's scientists have worked painstakingly on techniques to propagate new plants from the seed of the remaining one.

Margaret Ramsay, the head of Kew's micropropagation unit, explained that orchid seeds were so tiny that they had hardly any food resources around them to help them to germinate. The tiny seeds in the flower are thought to be assisted by a rare fungus, which has not yet been isolated. In the absence of the special fungus, scientists have now developed cultures to give the seeds some help in getting started.

Despite the mastery of these propagation techniques, which allow scientists to grow seedlings in large numbers, no seedling has flourished in the wild until now.