Restoration ecologists work to preserve orchids in Lake County Forest Preserves
Editor's note: The is part two of a two-part series looking at native orchids found in Lake County.
Orchids, known to be elegant, evolved and delicate, are among the rarest plants and habitats found in the Lake County Forest Preserves. The wildly popular family of flowers are scattered in varying densities across only 500 of the 31,000 acres of forest preserve land in Lake County.
Habitat destruction is one of the reasons the plants struggle to survive. Improving the health of the forest preserves through restoration encourages the persnickety plants to grow, and provides a healthier ecosystem overall. Known to many as the orchid whisperers, Manager of Ecological Restoration Pati Vitt and Restoration Ecologist Ken Klick are leading this restoration in Lake County.
Let's meet them and the coveted orchids they are working to protect in the forest preserves.
Pati Vitt, Ph.D.
Vitt has worked for the Lake County Forest Preserves for about a year and a half. She previously worked for the Chicago Botanic Garden and is a trained plant scientist.
Vitt recently launched the Rare Plant Species Pilot Program funded through a grant from the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves.
She has the expertise to determine the effectiveness of our restoration efforts and provide data-driven guidance on future restoration initiatives.
"My favorite orchid is whichever one is in flower right in front of me! But, the showy lady's slipper is the one that most excites me as part of our orchid recovery program. It has dwindled to very few plants, and really is spectacularly beautiful, and relatively easy to propagate, as most of the Cypripedium species are. I truly believe that we can recover this species in Lake County."
Klick has worked for the Lake County Forest Preserves for 25 years. He monitors rare plants and knows where many native orchids are in the forest preserves. He says that orchids don't magically come back, but they are expected to increase in numbers through our restoration efforts and special projects. In an effort to protect the species, we don't publicize where the flowers grow.
"My favorite orchid -- so many to choose from -- may be the white lady's slipper. This is one of the smallest and more exquisite of them all, and just 100 years ago was likely the most common orchid of Lake County. Today, we only know of two populations, none on forest preserve land, whose total numbers can be counted on two hands. Habitat loss, invasive species spread and groundwater decline has imperiled this species."
The survival of these rare plants depends on our intervention, he said.
Native orchid identification
What makes orchids particularly interesting, and enchanting, is the variety of their flowers. Each genus is different, with their flower shapes partly determined by the type of insect that pollinates them. Some orchids are colorful and showy, while others are understated and go relatively unnoticed.
Among orchids in the Lake County Forest Preserves, one is most common; six others are quite rare. Because of their protected status, their locations are never disclosed.
Showy Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium reginae)
• What they look like: 1-1.5 feet tall, with one large pink and white pouch-shaped "moccasin" flower per stem. They may be found in small clumps with several flowering stems. Under very favorable conditions, a single plant has been known to grow up to 200 flowering stems.
• Typical bloom: June
• Preferred landscape: Wet prairies, swamps, bogs and wet woodland edges.
• What makes them special: They have a long life span; a single plant can live more than 50 years.
Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)
• What they look like: 1-3 feet tall with a terminal raceme (flower cluster) of six or more white flowers that are about 1.5 inches long and have a fringed lower petal.
• Typical bloom: Late June to July
• Preferred landscape: Wet prairies, pothole marshes and fens.
• What makes them special: They are pollinated by hawkmoths and generally only put out scent after twilight. The Lake County Forest Preserves is a key partner with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Recovery Plan for this federally threatened species.
Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes)
• What they look like: 2-3 feet tall with up to 50 small purple flowers that have a fringed lower petal.
• Typical bloom: July
• Preferred landscape: Wooded wetland, such as flatwoods, marshes.
• What makes them special: This species is pollinated by butterflies, such as the yellow and black swallowtails, and also by clear-winged moths.
Grass Pink Orchid (Calopogon tuberosus)
• What they look like: 12-18 inches tall with deep rose pink or white/light pink flowers.
• Typical bloom: Mid-June
• Preferred landscape: Wet to moist sand prairies, wet to moist sandy meadows, shallow sandy swales, openings in sandy swamps, fens, and bogs. This orchid is found in high-quality natural areas.
• What makes them special: If habitat is right, they bloom profusely, creating drifts of pink among green leaves.
White Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium candidum)
• What they look like: 1.5 feet tall with diminutive white moccasin flowers.
• Typical bloom: May/June
• Preferred landscape: Wet prairies and fens.
• What makes them special: This clever species is pollinated by a multitude of small bees who get "lost" inside the floral pouch. It can take several minutes for a bee to find its way out. As it passes by an anther, pollen is glued onto the bee, going with it as it exits the flower.
Nodding Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes cernua)
• What they look like: 6-12 inches tall with a spike of tiny white flowers that spiral around the stem.
• Typical bloom: August/September/October
• Preferred landscape: Bogs, moist fields and meadows, marshes, fens and wet beach swales.
• What makes them special: The tiny fragrant flowers are twisted, or resupinate, meaning they are presented to their pollinators in an upside-down orientation.
Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum)
• What they look like: 1-2 feet tall with a stout, hairy central stem that ends in 1-2 shiny yellow slipper-like blooms.
• Typical bloom: Late spring to early summer
• Preferred landscape: Wet prairies and bogs.
• What makes them special: Differences in fragrance and flower size may account for variation in insect pollinators.
• 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.