Since early July, volunteers have been out on the Minnesota prairie taking a very special census of a threatened prairie wildflower. The prairie fringed orchid has been on the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants since 1989, and the annual census gives researchers important data necessary in the protection of the delicate orchid and its habitat.
The orchid’s population has fluctuated over the years. Across 43 sites in Minnesota the count had declined steadily from 2001 to 2006. The plants prefer moist soil and warm temperatures, but like to grow on the higher side of ditches or hollows. The most common threats to the orchids are habitat destruction including the conversion of land for agricultural purposes, conversion of lands for housing or commercial uses, herbicide drift, and spread of invasive species.
Western Prairie Fringed Orchid – Federally Threatened and State Endangered. It is illegal to remove these from the wild.
Family: Orchidaceae (orchids)
A stout, erect plant 1-4 feet tall that can remain dormant in the soil during drought periods. Blooms mid-June through early July. Flowers are creamy to greenish white. Each flower has a hood-shaped petal with 3 deeply fringed lobes and a long nectar spur in back. The blossoms occur in showy clusters at the top of each plant. Leaves 2–5, elongated, keeled, along an angular stem. Related Missouri species: The eastern prairie fringed orchid is very similar to the western, and at one time they were considered a single species. The eastern prairie fringed orchid has rounded stems and smaller flowers than the western species. It has been known from the eastern half of the state. It is also a federally threatened species. Another similar species is ragged orchid, which is smaller, has greener flowers, a narrower flower spike, and a shorter nectar spur.
Size: Height: 10–33 inches.
Habitat and conservation: Grows on moist sections of upland and bottomland prairies. This species, like the closely related eastern prairie fringed orchid, has been extirpated from much of its former range due to the plowing of native prairies and overgrazing. Both of Missouri’s prairie fringed orchids are federally listed as Threatened. The biggest threat to the populations in northwest Missouri are the invasion of prairies by woody species and the possibility of prairies being plowed.
Distribution in Missouri: In the past, found across the western part of the state. Now it is known only from a few locations in northwest Missouri.
Human value: Missouri’s orchids, even the relatively common ones, are not often seen, so the joy of discovering one in nature is a rare pleasure. Prairie fringed orchids are part of our state’s wild heritage and they and their habitats need to be protected.
Ecosystem value: Prairie fringed orchids are most fragrant at night to attract sphinx moths, their only pollinators. One of the reasons why native tallgrass prairies are so valuable is their amazing diversity, and this species is a rare but unique component of prairie habitat.