The Orchid Keepers
As prairie fragments continue to dwindle, dedicated scientists and volunteers brave oppressive heat and humidity to take the future of one of our most exquisite—and imperiled—
flowers into their own hands.
Kris Lah hops out of his official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service truck and pulls on his backpack, and we set out across a small park behind a suburban townhouse development north of Chicago. Although it’s just 9 a.m., it’s getting steamy on this early July day. Still, there’s a bounce in Lah’s step. He’s a man on a mission.
A dozen or so wooden stakes with red streamers tied to one end stick out the top of the pack and over his head. The stakes, along with a few Styrofoam cups and a stash of toothpicks, are the tools Lah will use today to help save an imperiled flower. More precisely, he will use these low-tech accoutrements to hand-pollinate the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid, an exquisite native wildflower that a corps of scientists, landowners, and volunteers is working to save from extinction. Just as humans have pushed this species to the edge—primarily by destroying its habitat—today they are laboring in the building heat, using toothpicks and foam cups, to save the plant.
We turn onto a gravel trail and in no time reach a one-acre prairie remnant here in Lake County, Illinois. The incongruity is striking, presenting a stark picture of the orchid’s predicament. The tiny, primeval fragment of prairie is hemmed in on three sides by suburban homes and on the fourth by I-94. Mosquitoes whine in our ears and red-winged blackbirds sing as trucks roar by. Sweat trickles down our faces as we wade through waist-high grasses studded with sawtooth sunflower, mountain mint, and the tallgrass prairie’s other magnificent wildflowers. “Deer love to eat these orchids,” warns Lah. “Last week there were flowers. But you never know what you’re going to find.”
We’re not the only ones working to save the orchid today. As they have been for 14 years, volunteers are out in Illinois’s few remaining fragments of native prairie, braving the blazing sun, stifling humidity, and pesky mosquitoes, toothpicks in hand, to stand in for three rare hawkmoth species that pollinate the plant, one of 10 native orchids on the federal list of endangered and threatened plants. As endangered species coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago field office, Lah supervises the Illinois eastern prairie white-fringed orchid recovery project, which aims to increase both the number of orchids and the number of sites in the state where orchids live. Coaxing an imperiled plant along the road to recovery requires a lot of people power, and the model project is demonstrating that volunteer “citizen scientists” can not only halt but even reverse the slide toward extinction.
In late June and early July the orchid, like its botanical sister, the western prairie white-fringed orchid, produces a spike composed of 5 to 40 white flowers. Each flower has a spectacular three-part fringed lower petal about an inch long, and a one- to two-inch-long tubelike structure called a nectar spur that hangs below. The two species have among the longest nectar spurs of all native North American orchids. The two flowers look a lot alike, but they are, for the most part, found on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. The western species, like its eastern cousin, is threatened and federally listed, although so far volunteers have not been mobilized to hand-pollinate its flowers.
As darkness descends on the Illinois prairie, the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid emits a jasmine-like fragrance. In days gone by this intoxicating aroma would prove irresistible to the plant’s night-flying hawkmoth pollinators, which would use their lengthy strawlike proboscises to sip the nectar found deep inside the spurs. In the process of drinking the nectar, the insects would dislodge a sticky yellow packet of pollen, which would be duly deposited on their proboscises. When they flew off and landed on another orchid, they would leave a bit of the waxy bundle behind to fertilize the bloom.
Despite all the bugs, birds, and other potential pollinators that live on the prairie, the white-fringed orchid has evolved to rely on only the hawkmoths for pollination and, as a result, seed production. Stout-bodied and inconspicuous, the hawkmoths that pollinate these orchids won’t win any beauty contests. But they are the only creatures with tongues long enough to harvest the orchid’s nectar and in the process play their ages-old role in the plant’s survival.
Less than a century ago, eastern prairie white-fringed orchids were widespread across the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes states, with so-called outlier populations in Oklahoma, Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine. In 1927 Illinois botanist Herman Pepoon called them a “blanket of white on the moist low prairie.” Today the blanket has been tattered. The remarkable relationship between the orchid and the hawkmoths persisted for centuries until the continent’s great grasslands were destroyed by the bulldozer and the plow. Although estimates vary, many ecologists believe that today less than 2 percent of the tallgrass prairie survives, mostly small islands in a sea of cropland and suburban sprawl. The draining of wetlands has degraded what little orchid habitat remains, as has the incursion of invasive nonnative weeds and woody plants. The suppression of wildfires, so vital to maintaining prairie plant diversity, has taken its toll, as well.
Common sense suggests that, like the orchids, the hawk-moths have also suffered as their habitat has disappeared. Cathy Pollack, biologist and resident moth expert at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago office, has spent many a sleepless night at orchid sites trying to capture and study the insects. She says that since no one studied hawkmoth populations 50 or 100 years ago, it’s hard to know what has reduced their numbers, though she says that severe habitat fragmentation is the most likely culprit.
Unlike the orchids, which rely solely on the hawkmoths for pollination, the latter obtain nectar from other flowers as well. So the orchids must compete with other plants for hawkmoth attention. Some sites have so few orchids that even if a moth is around, it may simply miss them. The sheer distance between the habitat fragments makes it difficult for the hawkmoths to move freely among different orchid populations to promote cross-pollination and genetic health. As a result, only a tiny percentage of the flowers are naturally pollinated, and humans must act as their stand-ins.
When the orchid was put on the U.S. list of endangered and threatened species in 1989, its numbers were believed to have dwindled by 70 percent. It was found on only 52 sites in seven states and two Canadian provinces, and many of these populations were small and unprotected. Illinois, which had the largest presettlement orchid populations, has suffered the most drastic decline of any state in the species’ historical range. The eastern prairie white-fringed orchid once grew in 33 counties in northern Illinois; today it is found in only nine. To complicate matters, most populations are vulnerable because they have fewer than 50 plants. And many of the state’s orchids are on private land, which means that cooperative efforts are the key to their survival.
Wallace and Barbara Hildy have been working with government officials, scientists, and volunteers for years to save the orchids at their home, a 14-acre plot surrounded by farmland in Grundy County, southwest of Chicago. Because their land is on low ground that stays wet late into the year and thus could not be farmed, says Wallace, “it remained a patch of Illinois prairie.” Most of the orchids are on about an acre and a half, only some 200 feet from their house. “We don’t have to traipse out very far to find them,” he says. Wallace, a retired engineer, has been methodically collecting data on his orchids since 1993, when the recovery project was launched.
That year the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes office in Chicago, working with The Nature Conservancy’s regional office, came up with the idea of recruiting volunteers to help save the orchid. Thirty participants attended the first training session, and 30 more signed on soon after that. “The volunteers are so enthusiastic, so dedicated,” says June Keibler, who served as the coordinator of this orchid brigade for 11 years. Keibler estimates that three-quarters of the original trainees are still looking after their plants. “They develop great loyalty to the site, and they’re very dependable because of their passion.” She tells of one volunteer whose small site, completely surrounded by cropland, had no orchids at all in 1997. By 2002, after much hard work, the site peaked at 744 plants. “That year this volunteer did all of the work alone, including pollinating and recording data,” she says. “He worked at least eight eight-hour days by himself, in the heat of July. His dedication was incredible!”
Because the Hildy site’s orchid population is extensive, an ad hoc team of half a dozen additional people is often rounded up to help. “In the beginning, we would have lunch for the volunteers,” says Wallace Hildy. “We would talk. I started going out to work with them.” Thanks to their efforts, much has been learned about the biology of the orchid based on experiments conducted on the Hildy site. “There’s lots of mystery about them,” Barbara explains. “They’re difficult to grow, and we’ve learned a lot about why. It’s kind of like a puzzle.” The Hildys will stay involved with the project as long as they can because “when we work with orchids,” she says, “we’re helping to prevent something beautiful from becoming extinct.”
Liz Aicher is another of the original volunteers. A land protection specialist for the Fox Valley Land Foundation, which works to preserve open space, Aicher bubbles over with enthusiasm as she describes her 14 years as a citizen scientist. “I moved, like, eight times in those years,” she says with a chuckle. “I even got married during year four of the project.” One constant in her life is her work at the same orchid site, a protected area in southwest Kane County, west of Chicago. “I look forward to the Fourth of July, when the flowers bloom, so I can get out there and sweat.”
Saving a threatened orchid requires a lot of time and effort. “The orchid sites are spread out all over,” says Lah. And because it’s impossible to predict the exact day the orchids will bloom, volunteers often must visit a site several times to make sure they are there when the orchids flower. Since not all plants bloom at the same time, in a good year they may need to return repeatedly to hand-pollinate the later-flowering specimens.
A hermit sphinx with actual orchid pollinia attached to its proboscis.
A month and a half after hand pollination, the orchid’s small, cigar-shaped seed capsules, each with hundreds of pinpoint-size seeds, start turning brown. Although most of the seed is left to be dispersed by the wind, the volunteers transfer some seed to other islands of prairie, offering a genetic shot in the arm to the fragmented orchid populations. Sometimes seed is planted at a new site in hopes of establishing another population. “Because many of the populations are on private land,” says Lah, “we would like to reintroduce them to protected areas.”
Aicher established one of these new populations. Although her site is in the orchid’s historic range, the plant was not growing there in 1993, the project’s first year. That summer she was given some orchid seeds and told to just sprinkle them around. “I didn’t want to take any chances,” she says, so she planted them systematically about every six feet. For several years she was disappointed to find that the seeds hadn’t germinated. On the Fourth of July in 1997 she visited the site with her husband. “We were wandering around in the area where I planted those puppies,” she remembers. “My husband pointed to a plant and asked, ‘Is this one of them?’ It wasn’t. I turned back around and right in front of me was this beautiful flowering orchid. It was like Christmas in July!” She soon found two more flowering plants. The following year there were 13. The year after that, 33. “It was becoming a party!” Aicher’s site is notable in another respect. Unlike other volunteers, she has never had to hand-pollinate, since there are still hawkmoths at the 118-acre preserve.
In addition to hand pollination and seed collection, volunteers count the orchids on their site, evaluate the habitat, and collect data on the health of the plants, including their height and the number of blooms. All of the data are provided to researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, The Morton Arboretum, and Chicago State University who are studying the demography, biology, and genetics of the species and evaluating the progress of recovery efforts. Most volunteers also play a critical role in improving the habitat value of their sites by clearing brush and removing invasive species. Sometimes they install wire cages to protect the orchids from deer. Many of the volunteers have received the necessary training to help burn the prairies on a regular basis.
But pollinating is the primary task for most of the volunteers. Eastern prairie white-fringed orchids bloom over a period of about a week and a half. At most that’s a few days that moths—or their human replacements—have to track down the flowers and transfer pollen from one plant to another.
Because the orchids are so scarce, finding them isn’t always easy. At the Lake County site, the plants are hidden among more common species, including big bluestem grass and ever-expanding clumps of invasive nonnative reed canary grass. After several minutes of poking around in the tall vegetation, we locate the first blooming orchid. Its number, 3906, is inscribed on a metal tag stuck in the ground about three inches from the orchid’s stem and marked by a bright pink plastic bow. Close by is another orchid, but its flowers have already sizzled in the sun. A few immature plants are scattered about. About 20 feet away is a second magnificent flowering specimen. “There are never a lot of orchids on this site,” says Lah, “but they are very robust, and therefore a good seed source.”
A withering drought has reduced the number of blooms at this and other sites. This certainly was the case at Liz Aicher’s site in Kane County. The drought began in 2004; the following year she found just a couple of plants, and even these were desiccated. “This summer there were zero adults, because last year the drought was so devastating,” she says. “But I have high hopes for next year.” Such natural events can lead to wide fluctuations in the number of orchids found in any one season.
At the Lake County prairie, Lah and two assistants prepare to pollinate. Out of his pack come the foam cups and toothpicks. At other sites, the wooden stakes would be used to mark the location of any new orchids. Because this site is visible from the nearby trail and staking might encourage orchid poaching, the markers remain in Lah’s backpack. To hold the tiny bundles of pollen removed from each flower, he sticks toothpicks willy-nilly into a cup, which begins to look like a homemade Mr. Potato Head. “You go to grad school and learn all these fancy techniques, then you end up using a toothpick and a Styrofoam cup,” quips Chivia Horton, at the time a Fish and Wildlife Service intern and one of Lah’s assistants.
With a toothpick Lah carefully removes a tiny pollen bundle, a male flower part, from one of orchid 3906’s flowers. He sticks the toothpick with its precious cargo back in the cup and carries it to the other flowering specimen, where the pollen is placed on a receptive flower’s female part, called a stigma, hidden beneath the upper petals. With another toothpick he removes pollen from the second plant, takes it to the first plant, and repeats the process. The goal is to pollinate one-third of the flowers of one-third of the plants at each site; research has suggested that this is roughly how many flowers would be fertilized if hawkmoths were in the vicinity.
Volunteers are supposed to put a small marker on the flowers they pollinate so they can monitor the success or failure of their efforts. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cathy Pollack was at the Lake County site last year to do the hand pollination. She dutifully marked the flowers she pollinated, then returned later in summer to gather the seed. “Only the flowers I pollinated had seed,” she says. “The moths were gone.”
Hand pollination, brush clearing, and other work done by the volunteers is exacting and often exhausting, but the efforts have paid off. Both the number of individual orchids and orchid populations have increased substantially. The volunteers have established six new populations on protected lands, successfully reintroduced it to five historic sites where it once grew, and helped increase the number of healthy orchids at existing sites. June Keibler reels off the number of orchids logged each year. In 1991, before the project began, she says, 190 orchids were found growing in Illinois prairies. Eleven years later volunteers counted 1,369 plants, the highest number recorded so far.
Few have observed the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid longer than Marlin Bowles, a botanist with The Morton Arboretum outside of Chicago, who was heavily involved in getting the orchid placed on the U.S. list of endangered and threatened species and later wrote the orchid’s recovery plan. Bowles credits the volunteers with proving that it’s possible to use hand pollination to increase seed production, and to use the resulting seeds to create new populations. “In the short term it has been great,” he says. He notes, however, that because the tiny prairie habitats will need to be weeded and burned, possibly in perpetuity, the orchid’s long-term prospects are less certain.
Bowles says the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid has been decimated solely by human activity, and that not one population has been extirpated due to natural causes. For millions of years, birds, bees, and hawkmoths have been the agents of biodiversity, scattering pollen and seed across the land. Now volunteers are playing a similar role.
As Lah dons his pack a final time in preparation for our departure, he compares the volunteers to the orchid’s moth pollinators. “Without the moth, the orchid wouldn’t survive. Without the volunteers, our orchid recovery program wouldn’t survive. They’re kind of our hawkmoths.”
Janet Marinelli has chronicled the plight of endangered plants and the efforts to save them in several books, including Stalking the Wild Amaranth: Gardening in the Age of Extinction. Her latest book, Plant, profiles 2,000 imperiled plants around the world.