Skip to main content

NATURE: Super-rare orchid a survivor of prairie destruction

One of Ohio's rare prairie fringed orchids

July 30, 2017

Jim McCormac

“Strike while the iron is hot.”
— John Deere
So said the famed purveyor of plows, shortly after launching his first chisel plow in 1837.
Once agriculturalists got a way to cut the thick sod, they wasted no time converting rich prairie biodiversity to crops. In little more than a century, most of Ohio’s prairie had been plowed.
Today, the destruction is nearly total. Of the million acres of original prairie that blanketed Ohio before European settlement, about 99.9 percent has been planted with a botanical triumvirate of beans, corn and wheat.
There have been untold losers in the prairie apocalypse. Midwestern prairies harbored some of North America’s richest biodiversity. Legions of plant species flourished in the rich soil. They in turn fostered a bewildering array of insects, which served to fuel scores of higher animals.
Many prairie plants are now imperiled. Among the rarest is the prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). This stunning plant was probably common in Ohio’s prehistoric prairies, but it is now reduced to a smattering of small populations in a half-dozen counties.
The prairie fringed orchid is a plant of stupefying beauty. A whopper can eclipse 3 feet in height and be bedecked with dozens of creamy-white flowers arranged on a spike. These flowers are deeply cut and fringed, and they look every bit as exotic as any tropical orchid.
For having the temerity to grow in soils destined to become America’s bread basket, the prairie fringed orchid has nearly vanished. It is listed as federally threatened — the rarest of the rare and one of only six plant species thus designated in Ohio.
One does not just sow orchid seeds and expect plants to burst forth. Most orchids, the prairie fringed orchid included, require the presence of mycorhizal fungi. The specialized fungi forge an alliance with the plant’s roots and help it to better utilize water and nutrients. Artificially creating this specialized subsurface relationship is nearly impossible.
Moths are another vital ingredient for the prairie fringed orchid. Each flower is equipped with a specialized nectar spur; this tubular appendage can be 2 inches in length.
Come dusk, the flowers emit a subtle sweet perfume. This scent lures any of a few species of large moths, which then plumb the depths of the nectar spur with extraordinarily long proboscises. In the process, they cross-pollinate plants.
I had long wanted to see the moths in action, and try to photograph them. So, on the evening of June 26, I encamped near a giant orchid deep within a beautiful prairie remnant in Clark County, and I awaited a moth.
As time passed and I began to wonder if I was on a fool’s errand, there it was! Like a fluttering wraith, a large Carolina sphinx materialized from the gloom and began to plumb the orchid’s flowers. I managed a few images, one of which appears with this column.
One can only wonder what miracles of nature we destroyed with the wholesale slaughter of our prairies. Had our species only had the vision to protect even 10 percent of this magical ecosystem, our world would be a far richer place.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for the Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

A Carolina sphinx moth snaking its long proboscis into a prairie fringed orchid


Auralee said…
What an amazing photo! It was nice seeing you on Saturday. We took a really nice stroll through the wildflower meadow at the bottom of the hill, as you suggested.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful article and beautiful photos ! The power of words and pictures to tell the stories ! Great work.
Chris Davidson said…
Excellent blog and images Jim... Especially enjoyed the Carolina Sphinx and E. Prairie Fringed image! Great job capturing it! Always cool capturing pollination in progress..

Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…