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by Cathy Pollack - US Fish and Wildlife
April 20, 2013

The eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) is a rare plant species listed as both state endangered and federally threatened. This orchid has specific life history requirements that may make it more challenging to recover.

In the past, Wolf Road Prairie supported a population of the eastern prairie fringed orchid, but it has not been seen at the site since 1983. In 2012, seed from the eastern prairie fringed orchid was reintroduced at Wolf Road Prairie in an effort to reestablish the population.

The orchid plant grows between 8 to 40 inches tall with upright leaves. Its white flowers are clustered on spiked stems. The blossoms are fragrant at night and flower about two weeks. The Hawk moth is the known primary pollinator. Preferred orchid habitat is mesic prairie and sedge meadow with full sunlight, high quality native companion plants and specific soil composition and hydrological conditions. It is believed that the orchid also requires the presence of mycorrhizae in the soil as a food source for germinating seeds and for plants to survive and reproduce.

Loss of habitat, conversion of wetlands and prairies to cropland and pasture and a 70% decline in drainage due to development has resulted in the decline and loss of this exquisite native plant.

Orchid Recovery Requirements

1. Protect Habitat

2. Manage habitat. Remove woody invasive plants and weeds and introduce prescribed burns

3. Increase size of habitat and population numbers at host sites

4. Conduct demographic field surveys and seasonal monitoring

5. Train volunteers to cross pollinate plants by hand

6. Construct cages to protect orchids from browse

7. Conduct regular census of orchid sites and numbers to determine viability of species and survival projections for the species

8. Protect existing populations on public lands in perpetuity and encourage protection on private lands

Urgent: Orchid plants only survive about one year after blooming three times. If blossoms are not pollinated, seeds set and collected and new plants and new host sites not established, the orchid remains vulnerable to extinction


Excerpt from the Consideration of the Potential Benefits and Risks of Translocating Genetic Material among Populations of Platanthera leucophaea in Illinois

A basis principle of conservation genetics is that genetic diversity supports evolutionary potential. The amount of genetic variability present in a population plays an important role in its long-term survival. If a population does not exhibit genetic diversity, the population may not be able to adapt to changing conditions in the future environment. When populations are strongly differentiated, this usually indicates that they are highly isolated and pollinators and/or seeds are not moving between them. Plant populations that are isolated and small are more vulnerable to loss for stochastic events, which can result in a loss of genetic diversity from the species.

For more information, contact Cathy Pollack, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist and Nationwide Lead in the Recovery of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid at: or 847-381-2258 x28.

Photos by Valerie Spale and Kim Roman

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