Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2015

Prairie Fringed Orchid

Once common in many states, two species of prairie fringed orchids are now listed as threatened due to habitat loss. In addition, hawkmoths, an important pollinator for the orchids, are rapidly disappearing due to the increased use of insecticides. These factors have made encounters with prairie fringed orchids extremely rare, even for avid orchid and native flower enthusiasts.

Missouri is one of the few states that’s home to both the western (Platanthera praeclara) and eastern (Platanthera leucophaea) species of prairie fringed orchids. The western species tends to be shorter but with slightly larger and more densely clustered flowers. Both orchids are found in moist to- wet unplowed, tallgrass prairies, and sedge meadows, but some have been found in old fields or roadside ditches. They can grow 1 to 4 feet tall and have as many as two dozen flowers, emerging in May and blooming in June.

I was introduced to these rare flowers about 15 years ago when I started learning about prairies and their ecosystems. Each year following that introduction, I tried and failed to locate them.

It wasn’t until 10 years later that I received a tip, through GPS tagging of the elusive flower, on two locations where both species were spotted. That summer, flowers on the prairies were more prevalent than normal thanks to ample rainfall in the previous months. I remember being so excited about the possibility of photographing not one, but two, of these rare flowers.

Searching for scarce flowers on a large remnant of prairie is not an easy task. After an hour or so, I located two orchids. I approached them very carefully, so as not to disturb the flowers and their environment. They were almost concealed by the surrounding tallgrass, with just a small part of the flowers peeking out. Gently swaying in the summer breeze, they looked mysterious and reminded me of a precious gem hidden in a secret place, just waiting to be discovered.

Looking back now, I am glad that my persistence finally paid off. Not only did I manage to get images of the flowers, but I also learned a great deal about prairie plants and conservation efforts to help them.

Prairie fringed orchids and other native flowers are a treasure to the state of Missouri and its prairie ecosystems. The diversity of plants provides important food sources for many pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and moths, and in return they create a richer and healthier habitat for all to enjoy.

—Story and photograph by Noppadol Paothong

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler