Formerly widespread in prairies and wetlands east of the Mississippi River,
the Prairie-fringed orchid (Plantantera leucophaea) has declined more than 70 %
from it’s original range, due to habitat destruction, agriculture, wetland drainage,
and the natural succession of wet prairies and forested wetlands. A federally
threatened species, Prairie-fringed orchids are currently known from only 55
populations in seven states, primarily Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.
Our Ohio contingent is state-listed as endangered, with only 10 other
populations documented…until now! When in 1993, two specimens were
discovered along the boardwalk trail at MBSP, directly above the area where a
conduit pipe carrying fiber optic cables had been buried the year before.
For the next three years in this area we counted 25, 16 and 33 plants,
. Then they disappeared, without a trace. For four long years we searched in
vain for the little ephemeral beauties with no success. Then, in 2001, one
flowering plant was found, a half-mile or more from the first documented location.
Then 18 more the following year! We were thrilled! It seems that the orchid’s reappearance may have again been in response in part to soil disturbance, this time unknowingly assisted by an assistant park manager’s activities.
Prairie-fringed orchids have been monitored in Ohio by the ODNR, Division of Natural Areas and Preserves for several decades, and were so few in number and occurrence that they were listed as an extirpated species by 1980. Then, with the discovery of two populations in 1982, were re-classified as endangered in the state. Orchid censuses are taken annually the first week of July, and consist of counting only the number of flowering plants; as non-flowering, fruiting and vegetative plants are difficult to locate. Data collection indicates erratic population fluctuations in this species, and suggests that from year to year the orchids alternate between flowering, vegetative and dormant stages.
At Maumee Bay State Park we are enlisting the help of maintenance employees, several eager scout troops, and many of our naturalist volunteers to give this orchid a fighting chance at survival. Check the statewide schedule of park events for guided walks this summer to our “orchid prairie”, or call the Nature Center at (419) 836-9117 for more information.