Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid

Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid

Description and biology

The eastern prairie fringed orchid is considered one of the most beautiful plants in North America. It is classified as a perennial (plant that lives, grows, flowers, and produces seeds for three or more consecutive years).

After lying dormant all winter, the plant finally sends up leaves and a flower spike in June. Depending on the amount of moisture that has fallen during the season, this stout orchid can grow to a height of almost 40 inches (102 centimeters).

The orchid’s stem is angled and leafy. The silver–green leaves grow along the stem alternately (each leaf is attached to the stem on the side opposite to that of the leaf growing immediately above and below it). They measure 3 to 8 inches (7.6 to 20 centimeters) long and 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) wide. The two lower most leaves on the stem are larger than the rest.

Ten to forty white flowers grow off the stem. These showy flowers have a deeply fringed three–part lower lip, which gives the plant its common name. At night, the flowers release a scent to attract nocturnal (active at night) hawkmoths to help pollinate the plant.

Eastern prairie fringed orchids can be long–lived. Individual plants have been known to survive more than 30 years.

Habitat and current distribution

The eastern prairie fringed orchid is currently found in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Ontario and in seven U.S. states: Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The plant is considered rare in its Canadian range. In the United States, very small populations occur in Iowa, Maine, Ohio, and Virginia.

Larger populations are found in Illinois and Wisconsin. Michigan contains the greatest concentration of eastern prairie fringed orchids. In the mid–1980s, botanists (people specializing in the study of plants) estimated that 18 populations with more than 1,300 individual plants existed in the state.

The eastern prairie fringed orchid commonly grows in full sunlight on the rich, moist, and sandy soils of open prairies. It also grows on sedge mats in open bogs, areas of wet spongy ground composed chiefly of decomposed sedge plant matter. In Michigan, it is often found growing on tufts of sedge or grass or on logs in lakes.

History and conservation measures

The main reason for the decline of this orchid species is habitat destruction. The fertile, moist soil in which the plant grows is prized by farmers, and much of its prairie land habitat has been converted into farmland. This process still poses a threat to some surviving orchid populations.

None of the known eastern prairie fringed orchid populations inhabit federally protected land. However, certain populations receive state protection in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.