Platanthera leucophaea

Today we were fortunate enough to stumble upon Platanthera leucophaea, the Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid, a gorgeous orchid that proves common names can be more tedious to say than scientific names. It's endangered in Wisconsin, federally threatened, and globally imperilled. We were very surprised to see one!

It's an incredibly beautiful flower, white with a bottom lip of fringe. (The modified petal that often looks like a lip, so characteristic of orchids, is called a labellum.) This orchid grows with numerous flowers arranged on a single, thick stalk. It smelled lightly of lilies, but we saw it at noon. The orchid is a nocturnally fragrant plant, pollinated by moths, particularly hawk moths. Hawk moths are not dependent at all on these orchids, which is one reason that they are not doing so well.

I submitted an observation to the Department of Natural Resources, the first time I've ever done so. I told them precisely where we found it, but I won't even give so much as a hint to you.

You see, orchids are beautiful and people are jerks who like to dig them up. We've been told that guides leading walks to see orchids at nature centres will refuse to show visitors certain orchids. They're not the jerks, though, for not showing people where the orchids are. The jerks who come by after the orchid walks to dig up the flowers they were shown to sell as houseplants are the jerks.

The trade in wild-found orchids is still widespread, and is one of the primary causes of the white fringed orchid's present plight. So not a peep shall be heard about where we went today.

Orchids are very delicate plants. According to one naturalist we spoke to, they have minuscule seeds dispersed by the wind. These seeds lack any sort of food, which means they need to be blown by the wind to very precise conditions, a difficult ask with the dramatic decrease in habitat. (Most angiosperms have seeds with a packet of food to help them grow.) They need a fungal associate to give it food, a phenomenon known as a mycorrhizal (fungus-root) relationship. Orchids take many years to build up energy through the fungi to be able to put up leaves, then many years more to build up energy through photosynthesis to put out their flowers. Wild-found orchids tend to die after a few years, because their mycorrhizal relationships have been destroyed by digging them up.

(This information is what I remember the naturalist telling us about orchids in general. It might not apply strictly to the white fringed orchid, though I believe it does.)

Ah, but orchids are beautiful! In an area replete with pale spike lobelia, hairy evening primrose, smooth hedge nettle, prairie fleabane, and many more, the orchid stood out. Here it is:

Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) © 2017 Jonathan Abresch