Monday, July 1, 2013

A Rare Orchid on the Prairies

Late June.  When the heightened humidity begins to make your clothes stick and the hum of annual cicadas rings in your ears; when the sun seems to hang motionless in the western sky and the raspberries are just about ripe, I know it's time to make my annual pilgrimage to a very special slice of Ohio.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

In a wet sedge meadow that seems no different than the rest but for a few short weeks each summer lives one of North America's most rare and spectacular of orchids: the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). I've posted on this site and species in years past but it deserves a breath of fresh air and some more attention as one of your blogger's most treasured of plants.

Lone orchid among the sea of sedges, forbs, and willows

In the past few years a few willow species (Salix discolor, S. eriocephala, and S. interior) have aggressively invaded and taken over the previously woody-free meadow.  This added competition combined with the stress from heat and drought of summers past had the prairie fringed orchids bloom much less vigorously than in previous seasons.  What two years ago was a profusion of blooming orchids, this section had only one flowering plant that I could locate.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

That being said there was still quite a few specimens in stupendous shape if you knew where to look.  Finding and enjoying their beauty pre-settlement wouldn't have been too hard a task throughout the fen and wet prairie regions of Ohio and the mid west/great lake states.  Being a life long fan of Big Ten football and basketball, I nicknamed this the "Big Ten orchid" for almost its entire geographical range occurring within states that are home to a conference's campus.

Closer look at their charming individual flowers

Within its wet prairie/meadow/marsh, fen, and shoreline habitats, prairie fringed orchid can grow upwards of four feet tall and contain well over 20 greenish-cream flowers spiraled around its stalk.  Each individual flower is about the size of a quarter and has its lower lip (labellum) deeply cut in a fringed fashion; almost as if the wind had shred and tattered tissue paper.  Their scent is light and faintly detectable by day but intensifies at night when its hawk and sphinx moth pollinators are most active and in the hunt for a nectar snack.

Handful of orchids peaking out above the sedges and grasses

I could witness these wondrous summer rarities every summer for the next 50 years and each meeting would be as precious and held dear as the last.  For your blogger nothing beats the sight of the prairie fringed orchids dancing in the warm summer breezes and their cream, waxy flowers gleaming in the sunlight.  There's little comparable to seeing their conspicuous wands contrasted against the surrounding green vegetation and brilliant sapphire sky.

A lovely pair of prairie fringed orchids

It may be hard to believe but the plant on the left in the photograph above could very well be older than I am. Fred Case, a brilliant botanist and master of North America's orchids recorded some plants eclipsing 30 years in age as an individual.  That's a lot of time, energy, and luck that has gone into an orchid that has evaded and escaped drought, flood, disease, browsing, and any kind of negative habitat change.  Just another reason to respect and appreciate these orchids not just for their looks but for their brawn as well.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

One of the more fun aspects to writing and publishing this blog is the opportunity to bring rare and unusual plants and habitats/ecosystems (like the prairie fringed orchid) home to those who cannot see or experience it for themselves.  I do my best to bring these topics and photos to life on your computer monitors and have you travel vicariously into the field with me; especially at sites and places as sensitive and secret as the prairie fringed orchids.

Orchid hiding alongside a spotted joe-pye weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus)

It really does seem like just the other day I was alongside these very orchids, admiring their physical charm and ghostly appearance like I am again a year later.  Even more difficult to believe is July is upon us again with so many more wonderful wildflowers and orchids to grace our landscape with their presence.  But you can't have July before you have the prairie fringed orchids knocking on the summer solstice's door once more...


  1. Is there active management in these areas to remove invading willows, or is the policy one of hands off?

    1. it's actively managed by DNAP and was removed of its encroaching willow back in 2008, I believe. It's definitely due for another round in the one section for willow and in the other separate area it needs some help with reed canary grass. it's always something...

  2. What wonderful flowers! I've seen the purple version up here in a fen on the shore of Lake Huron. Spectacular close-ups!