Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Federally Threatened Prairie Fringed Orchid

I've always had a collective attitude of sorts throughout my life.  First it was pogz.  Does any other person my age, maybe a bit older remember pogz from the early 90's?  They were cardboard poker chip-like things you played a game with, trying to flip them over with a weighted plastic piece.  I distinctly remember having an affinity for ones that had an eight ball design or a ying-yang.  Funny what the brain remembers huh?  Anyways.  From that I moved on to sports cards then autographs and movie memorabilia.  Like I said I always have to be working towards the completion of a set or goal.  Botany has been the most fun outlet for my never ending drive to find that next great piece or rarity and I don't see that stopping anytime soon.  Naturally as time goes by I have created a list of what species I want to see and photograph the most.  A 'life' list to say or maybe a 'hall of fame' to put it best.  I've been fortunate to have checked off quite a few species on this so far but one big one has evaded me the past few years.  As fate would have it this past late June I got the opportunity to strike off one mighty beast of a lifer.  Not only is it an orchid (go figure right?) but a federally threatened species to boot.  The Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Typical muggy and steamy Ohio summer sunset

As I was making the drive back home from the Bruce peninsula my phone rang with excellent news on the other end.  The Prairie Fringed orchid I'd been waiting months, years to see was in perfect full-flower in a wet sedge meadow in Clark County.  By the time my muddy and bug covered Forester arrived at the site it was getting to be evening and the sun was waning in the sky with thunderstorms threatening on the horizon.  The potential storms only added electricity to the already charged situation at hand as my eyes gazed out across waving tops of vegetation swaying in the breeze.  My eyes immediately picked out the tall, dancing stalks of cream colored flowers mixed in with the shorter grasses and sedges.  There they were in all their majestic splendor.

Platanthera leucophaea mixed in among the grasses and sedges

I'd waited a long time for this moment.  I slowly waded into the sea of graminoids, carefully watching my step as dozens of other orchids were still in tight bud and blending in with the vegetation.  The thunder that rolled in the distance through the dense and muggy atmosphere could have easily been mistaken for my racing heartbeat as I approached the first creamy wand in the meadow.  "Perfection", I thought as I knelt down to inspect it's stunning inflorescence.  It really doesn't get much better than this.

Platanthera leucophaea
Platanthera leucophaea

The first thing that really struck me about this orchid was its size and proportion.  Rising nearly four feet into the air with individual flowers the size a of quarter, the tall racemes of blooms appeared like small, white ghosts dancing about in the wind.  Each stalk can have upwards of 40 flowers, all with a very distinctive three-lobed lip.  Each lobe is heavily fringed as if some little fairy took an equally small pair of scissors and carefully cut the lobes into their delicately designed fringes.

Platanthera leucophaea
Just beginning to break bud

Each plant comes back year after year from an underground tuber that sends up a 1-4' stalk that matures and blooms in late June into early July.  Its leaves are alternately arranged up the stem decreasing in size as they ascend until they are merely bract-like protrusions.  Each leaf is narrow and lanceolate in shape and sheath the stem.  Like all other orchids this species can be very fickle from year to year in regards to blooming.  In fact, one Ohio population went dormant for decades before reacting to a burn.  The flowers are nocturnally scented like most Platanthera species of orchid.  Attracted by their sweet scent, Sphinx and Hawkmoths pollinate the flowers as they probe the inflorescences long, nectar-filled spur for a tasty meal.  An interesting fact about this plant is its surprising longevity.  In some cases individual plants are known to have lived for over 30 years, making large populations of this plant with healthy plants potentially an ancient organism as a whole.

North American distribution map for P. leucophaea (courtesy: BONAP(

As mentioned before the E. Prairie Fringed orchid is not just state listed as threatened in Ohio but its listed at the federal level as well.  Quite rare throughout its entire North American range, this orchid is listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated in every state and Canadian province (only Ontario) it's ever been found in.  Looking at the current distribution map above you can see it's concentrated mostly within the Great Lake states with a preference for those with a lot of wet prairie and meadow habitat (historically speaking), such as Illinois and Iowa.  Despite its current scarcity it was once much more common in the states highlighted above.  Unfortunately this plant and farmers share in the same love and preference for where it grows best and the farmers have won 99.99% of the time.  Most of Ohio's populations met their plow fate decades ago but some still cling to life in Clark, Lucas, Sandusky and Wayne counties to name a few.  Habitat destruction and degradation of its wetland habitat of fens, wet prairies, sedge meadows and even bogs have caused this species populations to decline severely across is range.  Even areas undisturbed by humans are still at risk from natural succession of the meadows and prairies to thickets and forest.  This orchid needs maximum amounts of sunlight and cannot compete with the shade producing woody vegetation that eventually encroaches.

Platanthera leucophaea
Platanthera leucophaea

This population is under ownership and management by the city of Dayton from what I understand and is actively managed to keep woody competition at bay and its specific list of habitat needs met.  It's small slice of wet sedge meadow is in a sea of corn and soybean fields running along the Mad River.  I'd love to believe that 300 years ago many meadow and fen openings in the river valley were filled with tens of thousands of these plants come late June.  I can imagine cooling myself off from the humid summer heat in a deep and cold pool of fresh spring water from the Mad and climb up the bank to be greeted by that green and cream colored sea of Prairie Fringed orchids.  Ah, the mind is a wonderful thing that is truly a dream-maker that never disappoints.

Your blogger and a fresh orchid
Absolutely stunning aren't they?

I decided to snap a quick picture of your blogger and a particularly fine specimen to help show off this plant's impressive size and beauty.  I found it a bit humorous that this elusive and very sought after orchid ended up being just a 15 minute drive from my home town of Tipp City in Miami County.  Needless to say my first experience with these incredible plants was not my last as I came back on several occasions to do population counts (well over 200 flowering plants this year) and get lost in their perfection.

Louder cracks of thunder and more frequent flashes of lightning eventually caused me to give in to the approaching storm and I made for the car with several glances back to the meadow to catch the orchids dancing ever more hectically in the squalling winds.  This is not a day I would soon forget and am very thankful to have experienced, especially as the delicious cherry on top of my Bruce peninsula sundae I was just arriving back from.  I can't imagine my beloved state of Ohio welcoming home one of its native sons in any finer fashion.

One more look...

I entirely meant to write and publish this post well over a month ago but somehow time and opportunity seems to slip needlessly through the cracks in the floorboards but better late than never!  I don't know how many of you have ever seen or had the chance to experience this impossibly awesome orchid so I was really excited to help with the introduction.  Long may this species thrive in this little patch of fen sedge meadow full of other neat botanical goodies.  This was definitely one of my favorite posts to reminisce on and write up and I certainly hope you were half as entertained as I!


  1. Thanks for another great post, Andrew! I have been sharing your posts on my Twitter account, spreading the words!

  2. Oh my! Not only did you find this cherished plant, you found DOZENS and DOZENS of them! What a thrill for a flower nerd. I truly understand. Thanks for letting us in on your delight.

  3. What a gorgeous orchid. I had no idea we have them here in Ohio.

  4. That's a beautiful and impressive orchid. Congrats!

  5. - Thanks, Diana! I appreciate you helping spread the word about my blog :)

    - Woodswalker, I'm glad to know you feel the same way about making discoveries and seeing plants like this. I'm sure your heart gets to beating just as fast and loud as mine at sights like these!

    - We sure do, Lois! They are very rare and people keep their locations quite secretive (deservedly so).

    - Thank you very much, Katie :)

  6. Very cool,I hear you on the heart rate! Great shots!

  7. Followed a link from GYBO blog to find this posting. I love it. I have spent the last 10 years chasing Indiana orchids. I have photographed all but one of the 43 extant orchid taxa with populations still to be found in the state. Last year I chased those that are extirpated. In Michigan I found Arethusa bulbosa in a bog where Plantanthera leucophaea can also be found. Although P. leucophaea is currently found in Indiana the location is a well kept secret by my friends at the Indiana Department of Nature Preserves. In addition the the Michigan location I am aware of a cemetery in Illinois and a prairie north of Chicago where this species can be found. Next summer I hope to "nail it" in one of those three locations. It sounds as if your site is flourishing. That's great to know. Thank's for the wonderful post and photos.

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Pete, and glad you found your way to my blog! I am in the same boat as you chasing our native orchids and photographing them. As of now I've seen and photographed nearly 50 NA native species and 38 of Ohio's 46 native species. I'd love to take you to the population featured in this post if you could muster a drive to west-central Ohio! Arethusa bulbosa is one of the few remaining native Ohio orchids I NEED to see and photograph and have my sights set on it this late spring. I need to ask around for a consistent spot to see it, as Ohio only has a single population left in a large bog in the NE section. I searched unsuccessfully for it last June but was definitely too late to the game. Maybe this year!