Friday, September 07, 2012

Leave Nature Alone?

                                              “O sweet spontaneous

earth how often …
has the naughty thumb

of science prodded

thy beauty”

How much meddling with the ecosystem is too much?
Or, to look at the flip side, when does “leave it alone” become shameful neglect?

This is a report on the prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) at Somme Prairie Grove. It’s a drama of a threatened species coming back from the brink.

Under modern conditions, neglected populations of this classic prairie species die out. Without our help, this orchid (and many, many species) would soon be gone from the Earth.

My adventure with the orchid began in the late 1970s when I was just starting my career. I got a report that a young fellow had found it in a forest preserve. Rufino Osorio grew up in a rough and crime-ridden inner city neighborhood, but his grandmother in Puerto Rico had introduced him to the love of plants. In Chicago, he figured out that the Montrose Avenue bus would take him to Schiller Woods Forest Preserve along the Des Plaines River. It was an Eden to him, in many ways. But when he found the orchid, he had to tell somebody. Rufino called the Audubon Society, and they put him through to me at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The orchid blooms for just a couple of weeks. Rufino gave me directions.

I went. I saw. I was in love.

I organized volunteer expeditions to Schiller Woods to cut back the brush that was threatening to shade them out and snuff the whole prairie community there. We did great work, but we noticed that the orchid rarely set seed, and its numbers were diminishing.

Then, out of the blue, Marlin Bowles of the Illinois Department of Conservation dropped by my apartment with a white-fringed orchid sticking out of a 7-Up bottle. It had been broken off by accident, and he’d rescued it, sort of, for scientific purposes. Sure enough, it was destined for greatness, because he used it to teach me one of the great intimacies of nature.

PHOTO CAPTION: This gorgeous flower is “all business.” The nectar is at the bottom of those long tubes that curve down from the back of the flower. To find out why, read about "playing-hard-to-get" orchid sex, below.

Sex and reproduction among the orchids is otherworldly. Only a few species of hawk moths can pollinate this one. The pollinator needs a prodigious tongue, because the orchid plays hard-to-get with its nectar. There’s a huge amount, but it’s at the bottom of a nectar tube that is longer than the tongue of any bee or butterfly or hummingbird or almost any moth.

Marlin knew why the Schiller Woods orchids produced little or no seed. Pollinators are few, and the moths rarely find the orchids. When a moth does find the flower, it backs up, unrolls its tongue, feeds that long tongue down to the bottom of the nectar tube and drinks. It also gets a pollen packet stuck to its head or the base of its tongue, and flies on the to next plant (where conception now occurs).

Marlin taught me (and I subsequently taught many people) to mimic the moth with a toothpick. Once you have the pollen packet stuck to the pick, you go to another orchid and press it against its “stigma” – a sticky patch just above the opening that leads to the nectar. When you do it right, the stem of the pollen packet stretches accordion-like until the now-sticky pollen pops back from the sticky stigma, ready to meet the ovaries of the next flower. It’s hard to describe, but it’s incredibly gooey, elegant, and sexy. And it makes baby orchids.

As this toothpick draws back from touching the sticky “sigma” – one pollinium’s stalk is stretched way out. The other pollinium on the toothpick, which didn’t contact the stigma, shows what both had looked like, seconds before. To an orchid, would this photo be pornographic?

Rufino and I and our pals in the North Branch Prairie Project wanted seed – so that the orchids could have a chance to reproduce in the many prairie patches where we were cutting brush and restoring diversity.

Orchid conservation isn’t for people who require instant gratification, beyond the sex part. It was five years before we saw the first results from our new seed. After four years of nothing, I frankly wasn’t thinking much about orchids in July 1985 when I got a call from insect researcher Ron Panzer.

“Packard, you’re a genius,” he announced. I asked for detail. He reminded me that he’d first thought Somme Prairies Grove was ecological junk, but now, on return visit a few years later, he was finding many rare insects and plants including, of all things, the prairie white-fringed orchid.

He assumed I’d already seen them. I had not. He gave detailed directions, and I raced up there the next morning. Now comes the start of our next chapter – betrayal, evil, tragedy and restoration.

There was no orchid where Marlin told me to look. The directions had been simple, and you can’t miss it. Only one explanation was likely. White-tailed deer eat (and in some cases completely wipe out) many endangered and threatened plant species. They especially like orchids.

In 1986, I prowled the spot Ron described and found four orchids in bud. Oh, Yes! In 1987, I found three – and more at other North Branch sites where we’d scattered Rufino’s seeds. A successful restoration experiment?

Those were busy times for me, and I didn’t get a chance to see whether these plants successfully escaped the deer, attracted moths and set seed. In 1988 I found zero. Okay, nature can be like that. But in ‘89 and ’90, also zero. In 1991, blessedly, there were four plants. Then in 1992 – another zero. Success? Failure? Which would it be? The next year would be the start of a whole new chapter.

For this account, I checked 1993 in my restoration journal; I found not a word of the orchids on any summer date. But in the back of the journal, where the special species counts are, under its scientific name, I find the entry “3*”. And at the bottom of the page next to the * are the words “put in chicken-wire cage for protection from deer.” I had found three and caged them.

Has it come to this? The orchids in little prisons? But this was at least a stop-gap measure to ward off local extinction. Those three or four orchids we were seeing on some years now would have a chance to start a population. They started to benefit from three different types of “meddling.” First – the cages. Second – hand-pollination of every plant every year. The third was the hardest: with many others we worked to achieve public recognition of deer over-population. Both the Village of Northbrook and the Forest Preserve District began culling to bring deer numbers into balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

There was also an amazing vote of confidence from the U.S. government. The Fish & Wildlife Service began work to protect this endangered species. It was declining most everywhere – except the little North Branch sites where we volunteers were tending it. Fish & Wildlife contracted with The Nature Conservancy (where I then worked) to replicate this success at many sites in northern Illinois (the heart of the plant’s range). I was honored to see the initiative started by Rufino and me adopted as a model. I also looked at our encouraging, but really rather feeble, success data and whispered to myself under my breath, “I hope this works.”

(There’s an important side note here. No one was caging the orchids at Schiller Woods. Deer numbers there were very high - and orchid numbers decreasing. No orchids have been found at the site where Rufino had first discovered them since 2003.)

Summary of Phase 1: During the twelve years including 1986 through 1997, we found no orchids in five of those years. In the other six years we found a few, with a twelve-year average of 1.8 orchids per year. This may seem a pathetically small population for all this history, but just you wait. The key fact was that orchid habitat was here, and these plants (22 over the 12 years) were each making 50,000 to 100, 000 seeds per year (once the deer weren’t eating them). In other words, perhaps one million tiny endangered seeds were floating through the air and landing in potential habitat.

Orchids have seed like dust, designed to blow in the wind. The seeds are so small that they’re barely visible to the naked eye. No seed coat, no “germ,” no structures of any kind. Just a few undifferentiated cells. When the wind drops one in the dirt, another drama starts. A specialized fungus must infect it, as if to devour yet another piece of soil detritus. The orchid seems not to resist this assault – but it uses judo. Soon the fungus finds that, instead of gaining nourishment, it is losing it. The orchid is eating the fungus.
Daniel Suarez braces his hand on a green metal post. It held the 
deer-proof cage he has removed briefly to pollinate. Posts? Cages? 
Toothpicks? Is this too much prodding and poking?

An orchid initially lives for years entirely underground, like a mole, or a fungus-y thing that only vaguely remembers its green parent plant soaking up the sun with photosynthesis. The plant consists of a root only. But it is a root that grows bigger each summer. It builds up resources until, three or more years later, it decides it’s ready to put up a green leaf and start competing with the regular plants.

Some orchids live a long time. Not this one. Most white-fringed orchids glory in only two to four years of knock-out flowers and then die. It’s those hundreds of thousands of seeds that live on, if given a chance.

Of course, that’s a challenge for us stewards, because we never know where to put cages until the deer have had way too much opportunity to find the sweet little orchid leaf. So now comes another kind of pampering. We search for and cage them in May when the first emerge.

Phase 2 of the Somme Orchid Drama represents a clear step forward. During the ten years from 1998 through 2007, we found orchids every year with an average of 8.2 per year. We found them in three other parts of the preserve. Now four little sub-populations were broadcasting their millions of seeds. (To put our numbers in perspective, in 2006 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found a total of only 109 plants spread over more than thirty sites in northern Illinois.)

Immediate gratification? Just fifteen short years from the start of intensive restoration in 1993? Hey, this is getting exciting. 

Before I give the results through 2012, here's a summary list of the kinds of meddling or pampering we did:
  •        Ecosystem restoration for the donor population
  •    Hand pollinating the donor population
  •        Harvesting and bringing seed to the restored site
  •        Years of overall habitat restoration for the new site
  •        Hand pollinating the new plants
  •        Seed dispersal in areas we select, throughout the new site
  •         Caging from the deer
  •         Deer culling
  •         Caging from voles (Those little rascals cut the bottoms when deer couldn’t cut the tops.)
  •        Watering (when we had a chance to) during droughts
  •        Sampling and analysis to help decide how many plants and flowers to pollinate
  •        Controlled burns approximately every two years
  •        Pulling or herbiciding invasive weeds
  •        Cutting and stump-treating invasive shrubs and trees
A person could argue that we were weakening the population with all this coddling. But natural selection is a powerful thing, especially with all those millions of seeds. Any weaklings drop out. 

So - results. The graph shows numbers of plants through 2012. Note that we had to change the scale of the graph: 

Is nature better off if we leave it alone, or if we’re good stewards?

For me, this graph answers the question, at least for this species ... at this site ... so far. 

In 2012, at Somme Prairie Grove, we had 345 plants in seven major subpopulations. In addition, the orchids are popping up in odd corners all around the site, whether we’ve scattered seed there or not. This is now one of the world's largest populations. Will it be robust year after year? Only time will tell. But the first thirty years of our stewardship are looking pretty good. 

Helping nature recover makes us happy.


Photos by Lisa Culp who has also done or coordinated much of the pollinating, caging and monitoring since she joined the Somme Team in 2008. Lisa is now a respected member of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service's orchid recover program. She has done "how to" presentations at conferences and trained many new "orchid stewards." 

Rufino’s website:


orchidartist said...

I can just hear the orchids say: "Thank you, Steve." "Thank you, Rufino!" My heart is happy. Thank you from me, too, for this beautiful essay. And the wonderful thing is, so many other folks have taken up the banner and are doing restoration at other sites on behalf of these charismatic, sexy plants.

Rufino Osorio said...

Thank you for another excellent post on Chicago area plants and natural areas. Of course, as one of the subjects of your article, I might be a little biased. As to the answer to your question (Leave Nature Alone?), I believe that the level of environmental degradation is such that leaving nature alone is no longer an option.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful outcome Steve. I marvel at your patience and persistence. Had you given up after just (!) 21 years, the world would have been worse off. Thanks for another great example of a fantastic restoration process, best wishes Ian

Stephen Packard said...

What a pleasure! A comment by Ian Lunt. For anyone who hasn't seen it, Ian's blog provides a peek into Australian savanna restoration - Fine graphics support fun and wise writing. When Bernie Buchholz of Nachusa introduced me to Ian's blog, I quickly deleted most of my dull earlier efforts and tried to do better. It's amazing to see parallels and differences between the North American and Australian grasslands.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, When is your little piece of paradise going to be designated a State Nature Preserve? It seems that with the current leadership of the FPDCC, conveying this designation on Somme Savannah would be prudent. Especially considering the population of the EPFO that now resides at this site.


Stephen Packard said...

James, thanks for the compliment. And, yes, permanent dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve is something that's been discussed for many years and seems to be slowly moving forward. It's a good idea, but it deserves careful thought. This would be the first site where nature preserve dedication would be approved principally on the basis of the successful restoration of a badly damaged community.

Ryan said...

Has the orchid continued to thrive? I'm guessing so or you wouldn't have linked in your more recent post.

Has the burgeoning population of orchids attracted more hawk moths? There must have been a lot of them in a healthy prairie to sustain the orchids. I wonder what limits them now. Among the listed hosts are grapevines, which ought to be common enough. Could favored nighttime nectar sources be scarce?

Stephen Packard said...

Ryan, thanks for the question. Yes, the orchids continue to thrive at the Somme preserves - with one hundred to five hundred plants blooming annually. Yes, the natural pollinators (longer tongued hawk moths) are pollinating many of them these days. Some populations seem to be well pollinated by the hawk moths, some not. It would be great if someone studied them and determined why.

I hope to write a fuller update on this plant one of these days or years.