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.
Similar species: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (P. leucophaea) is very similar to the western, and at one time they were considered a single species. 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 and is also a federally threatened species. Ragged orchis or ragged orchid (P. lacera) is smaller and has greener flowers, a narrower flower spike, and a shorter nectar spur. Of the 8 species of fringed orchids in Missouri, it is perhaps the commonest.