Hunting for an Elusive Orchid

Left: SCA intern and biology masters student Claire Ellwanger prepares for a field survey. Right: An eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

SCA's Claire Ellwanger contributes to the science that will help save this legendary flower

This post was written for Open Spaces, the official blog of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s part of a monthly series featuring SCA interns writing about their experiences working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Today, Claire Ellwanger checks in from the Chicago Ecological Services Office.

The search for orchids had begun. We were crouched on our hands and knees, enveloped in humidity and prairie grasses. As we rustled the sedges and grasses, the mosquitoes floated up to surround us. We searched exhaustively on the ground where orchids had been seen in the last couple of years, but sadly to no avail.

I kept seeing orchid leaves out of the corners of my eyes— smooth oval blades with parallel veins, a trademark of the eastern prairie fringed (Platanthera leucophaea). I had to look twice, because each time I was wrong. Sweat trickled and the mosquitoes’ incessant whine seemed to elevate into a jeering pitch. I was growing tired but I pushed on, moving more sedges aside, widening my search. Slightly disgruntled, we did not want to give up. We decided to search the rest of the prairie for blooming plants instead of just the ground-hugging leaves. We spread out, and walked slowly through the waist-high grasses. Continuous plumes of mosquitoes rose as we parted the vegetation, passing by dogbane and showy pink phlox, but there were still no orchids.

Why were we trying so hard to find these plants? As a Master’s student and a SCA intern with the USFWS, I have spent the past year finding any information I can on the eastern prairie fringed orchid. When I joined the Plant Biology and Conservation Program at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, I knew I wanted to study plant conservation, but did not realize how quickly I would become so intimately involved in the conservation of this threatened species. 

Claire Ellwanger snips a leaf sample for her biological conservation field research.Claire snips a leaf sample.

Today’s search zone — Hildy Prairie — was an important site for my genetic study. As part of my thesis I will use genetic markers to assess management practices within Illinois. I will compare samples collected 18 years ago to samples collected this summer. By re-sampling these populations I will be able to determine what type of genetic change has occurred over time, and if the USFWS is achieving their recovery goals. Normally, monitoring teams are only looking for flowering plants, but I need the leaves. A small sample of a leaf is all I need to take back to the lab, so even bloomless plants, though hard to spot, were important to locate.

Among the members of the day’s search team were Barbara and Wallace Hildy, owners of the Hildy Prairie and orchid enthusiasts. They’re part of a group of volunteers throughout Illinois who have been working to conserve the species since it was listed as federally threatened in 1989 due to severe habitat loss, small remaining population sizes, and low reproductive health.

The orchid is pollinated by nocturnal hawkmoths, but it is hypothesized that hawkmoths visit populations much less frequently now that the plants persist only in small, isolated groups. Volunteers work to monitor the health of these populations by taking demographic data.  They also increase seed set by effectively stepping in for the hawkmoths, and pollinating some plants by hand.

Additionally, seed is moved from some nearby sites to increase diversity and population size. USFWS biologist Cathy Pollack, my boss, has led recovery efforts for the species for the last eight years. She cultivates relationships with volunteers throughout the year and works all summer moving pollen from site to site, collecting seeds for dispersal and taking demographic data when volunteers are unable to make it. She also spent a lot of extra hours in the summer heat helping me collect extra data for my thesis, for which I am incredibly grateful. The recovery work for the eastern prairie fringed orchid is one of the largest ever undertakings in the realm of in situ plant conservation.

Back in the field, I was starting to feel a little anxious. We had come all this way and not even found a single plant! Then suddenly I saw a flash of white. “Oooh!” I whispered to myself. I rushed over to investigate, but it was just a different species with a spike of white flowers, a Penstemon, which shares a blooming season with the orchid. Hopes soared with more sightings of white plumes, only to be dashed given closer scrutiny.

SCA intern and biology masters student Claire Ellwanger with a rare orchid she and her team found in Illinois.

My dedicated intern, Rachel Wells, and I trudged on diligently,though I was starting to think we might have to give up. We were minutes away from calling it a day as we reached the end of the field, where the prairie began to mix with trees, when I heard a jubilant “Aha!” from Wallace Hildy. Our pants were soaked with the dew from the wet grasses as we rushed over. We crowded around and peered at the lone orchid. It was slender, with only five white flowers. I was surprised Wallace had spotted it, but what a relief! I now had one more site that I could include in my study. Wallace declared that he deserved an extra dessert that evening for finding the plant, and we all happily concurred. I snipped a small leaf sample, stashing it in a paper coin envelope. On the way back to the car I gave my pocket an extra pat to ensure the envelope was safely inside.

Although it was difficult to find orchids at this site, as it turns out 2015 was one of the best years for blooming orchids in Illinois. This is lucky for me. With almost 700 leaf samples collected over the summer and 318 from 18 years ago, I will have plenty of lab work to keep me busy this winter. Thankfully I’ll have help from my experienced research assistant, Laura Steger, and together we will surely make quick progress.

SCA intern Claire Ellwanger with her orchid survey field team.

These orchids face considerable threats, many stemming from the fact that they now persist in small, isolated populations. Understanding what happens to these plants over time, after they have experienced drastic loss and sectioning of habitat, will bring us one step closer to saving this species and many others facing similar challenges. Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a SCA intern has enabled me to conduct research that directly informs species conservation.

Cathy Pollack has been essential in making the project applicable to current species recovery efforts and feasible within the field season. Additionally, my advisor, Jeremie Fant, a Conservation Scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, has been critical in helping me create a robust and informative thesis. This collaborative experience has been instrumental to my developing understanding of what types of research are needed to help preserve at risk species, and how to successfully bridge the gap that can occur between scientists and resource managers. 

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