Giving Orchids a Helping Hand

By Keibler, Jane | Endangered Species Bulletin, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Giving Orchids a Helping Hand


Keibler, Jane, Endangered Species Bulletin


The greatest populations of the eastern prairie fringed orchid historically were in Illinois, although small populations existed as far northeast as Maine, and as far southwest as Oklahoma. Currently, however, it is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as threatened and is considered endangered by the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. In addition to habitat loss, continued threats to the species include invasion of woody vegetable, draining and conversion of wetlands, competition from exotic species, deer herbivory, and vandalism. In Illinois, the orchid currently is found at 25 sites, but many of them support only one or two individuals, and in some cases orchids have not appeared for several years.

The eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), one of the upper Midwest's most beautiful wildflowers, was once widespread in the region's prairies and wetlands. But like too many native plants, it is now rare and in danger of extinction, primarily due to the loss or alteration of its habitat. After botanists discovered that the orchid does not necessarily thrive even in protected habitat, they began to take the plant's pollination into their own hands, literally.

The inspiration for this unusual recovery strategy was conceived in 1981, when volunteers noted that orchids at a certain well-monitored location in Illinois were not setting seeds. They came to the conclusion that the species' natural pollinators, hawk moths of the family Sphingidae, were not visiting the orchids at this site. Steve Packard, using methods learned from Marlin Bowles of the Morton Arboretum, decided to try hand-pollinating this population. Later, Packard collected seeds and dispersed them at three sites in Cook County. Five years later, the first few orchids appeared on one site. In 1987, an orchid emerged on the second site, and in 1993, one plant appeared on the third site. Meanwhile, at the original or "donor" site, only one orchid has appeared in the past 10 years.

Following these efforts, a formal restoration project was initiated by The Nature Conservancy, acting in partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is guided by the draft recovery plan, which was written by Marlin Bowles. The project has two main objectives: 1) restoration of populations; and 2) management of habitat.

A key element in the recovery project is the need for volunteers. After workers are recruited and instructed in the art of hand-pollination, they are assigned to sites with existing populations and asked to take an accurate census of the orchids at their sites. …

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