Friday Flower – green fringed orchid

I may have been the “Beetle Group” leader for last May’s BioBlitz at Penn-Sylvania Prairie, a 160-acre tract of native tallgrass prairie in southwestern Missouri owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  However, it was a plant – specifically the green fringed orchid  (Platanthera lacera) – that would prove be the highlight of my visit.  I’ve already lamented the paucity of beetles that I found at the prairie and the possible reasons for such.  It’s a shame, because to my knowledge the BioBlitz was the first real attempt to begin documenting the diversity of beetles and other insects that inhabit the prairie.  This is in great contrast to the vascular plants, of which about 300 mostly native prairie species have already been recorded from the site in active survey efforts that began even before its acquisition.   It’s no coincidence that prairie plant diversity would be so high in this frequently burned prairie remnant while beetles and other insects would be rather hard to find, since vascular plant diversity is the primary – and often the only – metric used to assess the success of and optimal timing for prescribed burning in native prairie remnants.  Unfortunately, the response of invertebrates to fire-centric management techniques such as those used here have not been so well considered, with the apparent declines in their populations now fueling an increasingly acrimonious debate on the subject.  But I digress…

Also called ragged fringed orchid, this species typifies the rather striking appearance of the genus as a whole.  I’ve always been quite enamored with orchids (even possessing a small collection during my young adult days that I grew outside under shadecloth during summer and indoors under artificial light during winter) but have encountered only a small fraction of Missouri’s 33 native orchid species – mostly in the genus Spiranthes (e.g., Great Plains Ladies’-tresses).  Despite not having seen this genus prior to this day, I knew immediately what I had stumbled upon (at least at the generic level) as we scoured the prairie in our search for its meager scraps of beetle life.  While not listed as threatened or endangered in Missouri, it is still quite uncommon, with populations scattered across the Ozark and Ozark Border counties and occurring with greater frequency in these Osage Plains in a variety of open, acidic-soiled habitats (Summers 1981).  As is typical for species with green-white colored flowers, the blossoms emit fragrance at night and thus attract sphinx moths (family Sphingidae) and owlet moths (family Noctuidae) for pollination, including the hummingbird clearwing hawkmoth (Hemaris thysbe) (Luer 1975).  While our Midwestern populations are considered “spindly and unattractive” compared to the more luxuriantly-blossomed plants of New England and maritime Canada (Luer 1975), I consider this to be the most strikingly handsome orchid I’ve encountered to date.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec) w/ 100mm macro lens @ f/10 (whole plant) or f/18 (flower close-up), Canon MT-24EX flash (manual, 1/4 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Typical post-processing includes levels adjustment, minor cropping, and/or unsharp mask.


Luer, C. A.  1975. The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida.  The New York Botanical Garden, 361 pp. + 96 color plates.

Summers, B.  1981. Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

17 thoughts on “Friday Flower – green fringed orchid

  1. This is also one of my favorite orchids, but it tends to hide in the other vegetation and is hard to locate at flowering time. I usually see the basal leaves in the spring and then check back later to see the bloom. Unfortunately, it’s also a favorite of the deer and I often just find a nipped off flower stalk.

    • I almost overlooked the first one also, as the color of the flowers blends well with the surrounding grasses. Once I saw the first one, though, I was keyed in.

      I’d imagine deer are a much greater problem in your wooded habitats than out here on the prairie.

  2. You know I like this genus –, and am happy to report that at least this species is not rare at SNR. Fire doesn’t seem to bother it or its pollinators, as the plants I can keep track of make nice crops of their infinitessimal seeds.

    Also worth mentioning is the chrysolmelid work done by Doug Ledoux, still unpublished, but hopefully will some day be, and a good start on studying both diversity and fire effects on prairie beetles of that family.

    • I forgot about that photo. I suggest fire doesn’t bother it’s pollinators because they (or at least enough of them) don’t specialize on prairie plants for larval development. Hemaris thysbe, for example, feeds as larvae on hawthorn, honeysuckle, snowberry, viburnum, etc. 🙂

      Doug’s data will certainly be useful for characterizing leaf beetle diversity on the prairie, but unless his surveys started prior to implementation of fire management it won’t be of much use for assessing fire impacts.

      Are there any long-unburned, significant-sized prairie remnants left in Missouri?

    • Thanks, Prem. I’m sure Florida has more than enough native orchids to keep you busy – that state alone deserves its own book!

      If you ever do wander up this way to see what Missouri has to offer, let me know. I’d love to tag along.

  3. There are some privately owned prairie tracts that are hayed annually and have no known burn history. Some nice ones are up near Kirksville. One has to think that annual removal of 95% of the living plant biomass every July or August has its own drastic effects. Of course, there is no such thing as an undisturbed prairie, something that is supremely oxymoronic.

    • How much biomass did the herds of bison and elk remove on average? (Not counting the return of biomass through poop and rotting carcasses :)).

      I’m all for disturbance – the more diverse the better. Burning, light grazing, haying, and no disturbance all have their place, especially in a rotational/mosaic approach. Everyone agrees that heavy grazing to the exclusion of any other disturbance factor is a poor approach to prairie management, so why do plans that utilize burning to the exclusion of any other disturbance find such favor?

      I think the thing about this debate that disturbs me the most is the dismissiveness exhibited by some advocates of aggressive burning. The concerns that have been voiced are neither trivial nor spurious, and some caution seems warranted until there is a clear scientific consensus.

  4. Excellent Platanthera species you got there Ted! Much more interesting than the few we have out here in CA, where that genus of native orchids goes much ignored as a result. Who knew they had pretty cousins?!

  5. Pingback: Gravity’s Rainbow » Blog Archive » Another Berry Go Round!


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s