Friends logo

The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden


Cherishing Orchids, an Eloise Butler Legacy

by Susan Wilkins

Eloise Butler
Eloise Butler, photo courtesy Minneapolis Public Library.

Since its founding in 1907, the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary has been a refuge for many of the 43 species of orchids native to Minnesota. This captivating family of plants has always been a favorite of Garden visitors, and the orchids of the Garden continue to inspire those who take the time to view their fantastic displays of color and form.

Although unusual and often mysterious in appearance, orchids, as a family of plants, are anything but rare. Over 20,000 known species of orchids are found worldwide, the largest numbers in tropical rain forests. The 43 terrestrial species found in Minnesota all moved in after the last glaciers receded from the area.

Eloise Butler was fascinated by and passionate about orchids. One of the reasons that she chose this location for her Wild Botanic Garden was the presence of native orchids endemic to the area. As she stated, “A particular reason for selecting this place was the un-drained tamarack swamp, such a swamp being the abode of most or our orchids and insectivorous plants so interesting in habit and structure.” With this in mind, the presence of orchids in our Sanctuary is not only a wonder for the visitor to behold but an important part of the history of the Garden.

Below: The Showy Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae) is easily identified by its pure white petals and sepals with a combination of pink and white on the pouch. Photo - Friends ©G D Bebeau.

Showy Lady's-slipper

Despite our love of orchids at the Wildflower Garden, few that have been planted throughout the past century have survived or reproduced to share their untamed beauty with us. Eloise was quite aware of the difficulty of maintaining orchids in the Garden, finding them “uncertain, coy and hard to please.” Regardless, she persisted in her attempts to make them happy here, planting nearly 40 species during her tenure. (see notes below)

Of the scores of native orchid species that have been planted here, none are cherished more than the Showy Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae). “The greatest prize of the swamp is our State Flower the showy Cypripedium, the pink and white lady’s-slipper, a member of the orchid family. No flower wild or cultivated, is more magnificent that this,” wrote Eloise in June of 1911. Over 20 years later she went on to say the “the Showy lady’s slipper . . is the crowing glory of the Preserve ...Visitors are so enraptured with the display in my garden that they feel like falling on their knees to worship them. The Cypripedium is considered by many the most beautiful flower in the world.”

Notes: As late as 1951 in her Garden Inventory, Martha Crone reported 15 orchids growing in the Garden.

Susan Wilkens participated in a Showy Lady's slipper rescue mission in 2005 and 2012. Details here

For some history of all the orchids once in the Garden with photos, see this article.

Information sheet on the Showy Lady's-slipper