05 July 2009

It's a Fourth of July Miracle!

Independence Day is Lindsay's favorite holiday. It's summer, there are cookouts, bonfires, and fireworks, and it is a holiday that requires little effort (no gifts, large meals, etc.). Yesterday was a memorable 4th of July, for sure. Prior to heading into North Liberty for the best burger in town at the Wabash and the parade of fire engines, tractors, and people on goofy bicycles, I took Bootypants for a walk on our trails (as either Lindsay or I do every day). We certainly didn't purchase our property for its floristic quality, as the land, which was formerly a hog farm, is severly degraded and covered mostly by tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and non-native pasture grasses such as Hungarian Brome (Bromus inermis), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), Tall Fescue (Festuca elatior), Timothy (Phleum pratense), and Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis). Sure, there are a couple of more average quality native plants, like Swamp Agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora) and Spring Avens (Geum vernum), but it's a weedy property. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when, while walking the trails, I saw this...

Yeah, mostly weeds: Hungarian Brome, Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Tall Fescue, Field Hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum), Kentucky Blue Grass, Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), and Tall Goldenrod can all be seen in the photo above. But look at the plant in the middle of the photo.

I was completely shocked. Astounded. Baffled. I think my response, when I saw the plant, was, "Holy crap, Habenaria lacera!" I called Lindsay, who was in the house, from my cell phone, first to make sure I was really awake, and second to have her join me on the trail with a camera and notebook. I had found a single plant of Ragged Fringed Orchid, Platanthera lacera (=Habenaria lacera) among a bunch of weeds in our upland old field. Plants of the Chicago Region (Swink and Wilhelm, 1994) lists acid bog, peaty sand prairie, mesic prairie, and artificially disturbed moist peaty areas as habitat for this species. Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Case, 1987) adds sandy wet meadow and roadside ditch to the list of known habitats for Ragged Fringed Orchid. Orchids of Indiana (Homoya, 1993) includes calcareous fen, acid seep spring, dry field, mesic flatwoods, and mesic upland forest to the list of known habitats for the species. Of this long list of habitats, Homoya's dry field comes closest to what we have on our property. However, he later states that Ragged Fringed Orchid is found most frequently in moist, sunny, mildly acidic habitats, which are more common in some of the northern Indiana natural regions, but that in southern Indiana it can be found in old fields dominated by Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). This seems different from the silty clay, weedy field in which the plant grows on our property.

All of this leads me to question my plans for our property. When we purchased the land, we assumed that the area was historically mesic upland forest, and the historical survey notes agree. I had fully intended to plant trees throughout the property to restore this pre-settlement plant community. After finding this species, which is most commonly found in prairie-like communities, I wonder if there were historically patches of prairie on our property, and if instead if I should manage for a mosaic of prairie and mesic forest instead of a uniform mesic upland forest.

It is interesting to note that the Ragged Fringed Orchid on our property is located approximately 1 1/2 feet off of our mowed trail, approximately 4 feet from a deer path, and approximately 10 feet from several large Autumn Olive shrubs. Ragged Fringed Orchid is a species that can show up one year and not the next, so it is possible that conditions at our property were just right this year for the species to show up, where it hadn't been there the previous two yeas that we've owned the property, and it may never show up again. Ragardless, it made this 4th of July memorable, and has really made me rethink how to "restore" our property. Any insights would be much appreciated.


Justin said...

That is pretty darn sweet! Platanthera lacera, in my mind, is a weird plant. I found it on my place last year growing in a forb poor prairie remnant. I have also seen it in high quality prairies in SW MO as well as fescue fields. Every time I have seen it there has only been a single stem. I think because it is a Platanthera, it gets more credit than it deserves. It is certainly the weediest of the genus. FNA lists roadside banks, ditches and old fields in addition to more quality habitats for it. Both Yatskievych (vol 1 Flora of Missouri) and Homoya (Orchids of Indiana) mention that it appears to be increasing in range since new populations are being found outside its historical range. My gut reation is that your plant is probably more of a colonization event than evidence of a prairie remnant. Given its strange behavior, I would look for more justification of prairie than this single species. Regardless, it is a fun and mysterious plant. Congratulations!

Scott said...

Hey Justin. I, too, would have thought that this was a colonization event, but I would have thought that other, less conservative species would have shown up before Platanthera lacera. Similarly, I would expect other prairie remnants if this was truly a remnant of what was there historically. Weird plant, indeed.