How native orchids grow in Lake County Forest Preserves
Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series looking at native orchids found in Lake County. Watch for the next part that will feature native orchid identification and more about Lake County Forest Preserves orchid whisperers, Ken Klick and Pati Vitt.
Known for their beauty and curious charm, orchids capture more hearts than possibly any other family of flowers. When you picture the wildly popular plant, you often think about the tropics and faraway places. Many people do not realize that Illinois has 45 native orchid species, 18 of which can be found in small populations in the Lake County Forest Preserves.
"Native orchids -- known to be elegant, evolved and delicate -- are among the rarest plants and habitats found in the forest preserves. Their populations are scattered in varying densities across only 500 of the 31,000 acres of natural lands we protect and manage," said Ken Klick, restoration ecologist at the Lake County Forest Preserves. He has been studying these plants for 25 years.
There are so many pieces of the puzzle that have to fit just right to ensure that the delicate plants continue to exist in Lake County. It starts with the seeds. Orchid seeds are the smallest in the plant kingdom, like dust.
"Think of an orchid seed as a self-contained baby with a lunchbox," said Pati Vitt, manager of ecological restoration at the Lake County Forest Preserves. The seeds are so small and have very little food reserves to nourish a developing embryonic orchid plant. Therefore, they have evolved with a close relationship with mycorrhizal fungi that provide carbon (food) and other resources to the developing plant.
Depending on the species, orchids can grow in woodlands, bogs, dunes, prairies and wetlands. These plants are sensitive to habitat disturbance, especially land use changes. Before humans began draining wetlands to make way for development and agriculture, the flowers were plentiful, Klick said. At one time, grass pink orchids (Calopogon tuberosus) were frequent in the sandy moist prairies of northern Illinois. Habitat destruction is a primary reason the species is now on the state's endangered list. Forest preserve staff improves the health of the preserves through restoration to encourage the persnickety plants to grow, providing a healthier ecosystem overall.
"Orchids tend to be indicators of healthy habitat," he said.
The most common orchid in the forest preserves is the nodding lady's tresses (Spiranthes cernua). This resilient species is better than most native orchids at recolonizing on degraded land, such as abandoned agriculture fields and wetland edges. It may take 50 years for abandoned fields to return to suitable habitat for colonizing.
The orchid's elusive nature is part of its allure.
"Orchids seem to come and go," Vitt said. "Many orchids are sporadic, they appear one year and then they're gone for the next 20 years. While others return to the same place, year after year, depending on the species."
Part of the plant's mystery is why some species don't return. For years our volunteers, a vital part of our rare plant monitoring program, have recorded the yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) at one location. Then all of a sudden, it disappeared. There is no clear answer as to why. Culprits could be frequent deer browsing, change in climate, invasive species overtaking the area, flooding, or not enough controlled burning, Vitt said. Another concern is that people poach orchids, regardless of their protected status. This is the reason we don't publicize where the flowers grow.
A toothpick or blade of grass is used to hand pollinate eastern prairie fringed orchids.
- Courtesy of Pati Vitt
One of the key drivers behind the orchid family's vast floral diversity is that many species are exclusively pollinated by a single pollinator species. Moths, butterflies, bees, mosquitoes and other insects are lured to the orchid's nectar, color or fragrance. The flowers have very specific shapes, sizes, colors and aromas. By being so specific, only one, or very few, insect species can access the sticky pollen, which becomes "glued" as a small flag-like mass to a proboscis (tongue or feeding organ), or to the back or eyeball of the insect visitor. The insect then whisks it away to be deposited on the stigma of the next flower it visits.
Sometimes the insects required to pollinate orchids are no longer found in a region, as natural areas become more and more fragmented. This is the case with the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), which is pollinated by hawkmoths attracted to the plant's nocturnally fragrant white flowers. During their visit, pollen is inadvertently collected on their proboscis as they drink nectar from the flower's long tubes.
Fewer hawkmoths in an area means less cross-pollination, and as a result, the orchids suffer from inbreeding. Staff and volunteers pollinate the flowers by hand to ensure this species survives, along with the purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes) and the yellow lady's slipper. Using toothpicks or a blade of grass, human pollinators collect pollen from blooming plants at one site and transfer it to other orchids at another site.
"The survival of these rare plants depends on our intervention," Klick said.
The yellow lady slipper orchid blooms in late spring to early summer.
- Courtesy of Pati Vitt
A fighting chance
Through a grant from the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves, Vitt launched the Rare Plant Species Pilot Program earlier this year to give these captivating orchids and other rare plants a chance to grow in Lake County.
Long-term plant monitoring is critical to understanding the effects of changing climate and other factors on local ecosystems. More than 300 data collection points are maintained across prairies, wetlands and woodlands. Through decades of monitoring efforts, more than 100 species of special concern have been identified throughout the forest preserves. Thanks to the grant, seven rare plants, including three orchids, are a priority for reintroduction into preserves where they have not been confirmed but suitable habitat exists.
The eastern prairie fringed orchid can be found in wet prairies and fens.
- Courtesy of Carol Freeman
Next innovative step
To aid in growing difficult orchids, we have also formed partnerships with horticulturalists and scientists to start the seedlings in labs. Vitt is leading the effort to germinate the seeds in a sterile lab environment, grow them in a greenhouse, and transfer them to the Native Seed Nursery at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserves in Grayslake before they are planted in the forest preserves. It can take many weeks for the seeds to begin to grow, and up to three years for the young seedlings to be large enough to transplant into soil.
Using grant funds from the Illinois Orchid Society, staff will be growing showy lady's slipper orchids (Cypripedium reginae) in the lab. This year, we will collect and send seeds from other orchid species, including the white lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum) and the purple fringed orchid, to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which has an active orchid conservation program. We are also working with the Chicago Botanic Garden to germinate seeds of nodding lady's tresses and the showy lady's slipper.
"When these lab seeds thrive, the whimsical orchids will end up back here growing in the preserves," Vitt said. "It's an intricate process to conserve and protect these native orchids and their habitat. Every orchid species has a story and we are looking forward to seeing more of these beautifully complex plants in Lake County."
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.