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Local

On the orchid hunt

A natural prairie in rural Morris is home to rare species of orchids

MORRIS – A privately owned piece of land in rural Morris has been serving as an example of pristine Illinois prairie for several years, and a recent orchid count showed that at least one particular species of North American orchid continues to thrive.

That’s important because the eastern prairie fringed orchid, or Platanthera leucophaea, is federally threatened and state endangered. The Hildy Prairie is one of the handful of places it continues to grow unthreatened by development or grazing.

Wallace and Barb Hildy live there now and maintain the seven-acre prairie. When Wallace’s family moved to the acreage in 1973, they didn’t know its botanical uniqueness.

Years later, Wallace and Barb moved to the property.

“It was the second year we moved out here,” Barb said, “when I noticed the queen of the prairie (flower).
I couldn’t find them in any of the books.”

She asked a friend of hers who was a volunteer at the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, and her friend brought an expert to take a look.

“He identified the queen of the prairie,” Barb said, “and also the white fringed prairie orchid. From that time on, we’ve been working with the state and letting people do research here.”

“This very small piece of land is original Illinois prairie,” Wallace said. “It’s unique in that it was never plowed. Just about 99.99 percent of all Illinois prairie was plowed. ... Because it was wet late into the season, farmers could not plow it, and they didn’t think it could be tiled well.”

Wallace said the land has not been grazed, either, and that even the nearby prairies at Goose Lake and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie were grazed in the fairly recent past and are being restored.

Seeds have even been taken from the Hildy Prairie to help repopulate such species as the eastern prairie fringed orchid at Goose Lake and other sites. Their land is now an official Illinois Natural Heritage Landmark and a Nature Preserve.

“It’s been a great spot for research,” Wallace said.

The Hildys are now citizen scientists, maintaining the prairie and helping organize countings, burns and protective designations.

Various agencies and private organizations have participated in research on the prairie, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Conservation, Morton Arboretum, the University of Illinois, Chicago State University, Illinois College and the University of Florida.

Cathy Pollack, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Hildy Prairie is classified as a mesic prairie/sedge meadow on a glacial ridge.

Each year, Pollack and volunteers perform an orchid count on the property, or Wallace does it himself if necessary. This year, the count was done the fourth week of June and found 54 plants – a healthy number. Wallace said the counts have ranged from zero to 280.

He has no idea why there were no orchids for a couple of years.

“All of a sudden, they just didn’t do anything,” he said. “We’ve seen two dips, at least – one we think was due to drought – but then they came back.
A population of 50 or more per blooming plants per year is considered healthy, or if the trend of blooming plants continually increases each year, this is good, too.”  

The eastern prairie fringed orchid begins blooming in late June or early July, and the pretty white blossoms only last seven to 10 days.

“One criteria we use to monitor the health of a population is to count the number of blooming plants every year,” Pollack said. “They are difficult to find if they are not blooming, and so that’s why we wait until they are blooming to do the count. We also hand-pollinate the plants, cross-pollinating with pollen from a different plant from the same site.”

The plants also need a particular species of insect – the hawkmoth – to pollinate them at night. They must also have a network of underground, symbiotic fungi to grow, in addition to annual fire burns.

Non-native, invasive plants are currently the bane of the Hildy Prairie, and they are asking for help from volunteers on that front.

Help is needed to pull garlic mustard and other non-natives and to assist in cutting back brush.

Information about volunteering at the prairie can be obtained by emailing bhildy@gmail.com.

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