Saturday, February 24, 2018

Captured By Lady-slippers: then afterthoughts and aftershocks

It was one of my first assignments. I was so happy to have a proud new job with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Never, never had I imagined being paid a salary to save rare nature! My boss Gerald Paulson was an impressive combination of the worldly wise and the idealist. His boss, our director George Fell, was the grand old man of conservation, founding director of The Nature Conservancy and the crusading Illinois Commission, where I now worked.

Illinois revolutionizing conservation. Fell, Paulson, and Jack White had just finished the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. Now, instead of arguing about which areas were worthy, Illinois would "follow the Inventory” and focus on the scientifically selected 610 most important places for biodiversity.

Illinois - out in front of all the other states and the feds - now had a defined mission - to save nature. But had we defined nature somewhat wrongly? In line with the penchants of George Fell, we defined “nature” as areas “undisturbed by man.” That definition would come back to haunt us, but for now, it was close enough. We had work to do.
These beauties seduced me to disobey my new boss in my new dream job.
Oh, the temptations we don't resist!
One casualty of the Inventory was a disturbed little prairie west of Chicago. Palatine Prairie would now be bulldozed because it did not have enough “undisturbedness.” It failed to be recognized by the Inventory because it contained less than the needed quarter acre of “Grade A.” But before the flood-retention bulldozers showed up, Paulson directed me to go there, dig up some endangered lady-slipper orchids (Cypripedium candidum), and transplant them to a protected site. This was a bad idea, for so many reasons. (See Endnote 1.)

We should not try to save the Palatine site, Paulson said, because we had more important irons in the fire. He didn't want to disrupt delicate negotiations with the agency that owned the land – and put in jeopardy the saving of a much more important prairie that they also owned. (See Endnote 2, if you want.) 

I drove to Palatine with a shovel and some bags. I parked in a strip mall, sneaked across railroad tracks, climbed into and out of a deep ditch, and sure enough, there was open rolling grassland with bits of fair to good prairie surviving here and there. In a small very high quality area, prairie lady-slippers were in bloom – big clumps, nearly a foot across, growing side by side with prairie dropseed, smooth phlox, hoary puccoon, and other indicators of “virgin ground.” To dig them up meant digging and lugging gallons of ecosystem that had until today been “undisturbed by man” for all time.
In some high quality prairies, lady-slippers were as common as grass.
But these sites are few, and many are losing species and quality fast. 

Did I really want to do this? I did not. It had required courage for Paulson to hire me, as I had no scientific credentials. I was known as a conservation activist, writer, speaker, and volunteer catalyst of prairie restoration. Paulson wanted those skills and that spirit in the team he was assembling to save those 610 high-quality areas identified by the Inventory. Others on the team had academic botany backgrounds; I had on-the-ground and with-the-people experience.

It pained me to stick a shovel into a rare piece of Earth that seemed unethical even to walk on. These diverse blooming prairie plants had been flourishing here for thousands of years. Jeweled grassland had extended to the horizon. Now, in all directions, the animals and plants of ancient nature had been plowed, paved, bulldozed, abominated in so many ways. This remnant was both holy and alive. I hesitated. It took deep patriotism toward my new job to do this. Then I stabbed the shovel into what had until then been so pure. The violence was the lesser of evils, or so I told myself. Before stabbing into the edge of the second clump, I paused longer. After the third I could do no more. Proud new-employee resolution failed. “I must be crazy,” I said under my breath. “What I’m doing is ugly.”

Okay. I took those three heavy clods of rare orchids and re-planted them as best I could. Then I defied the boss and saved Palatine Prairie from destruction. In the end, everyone was happy, but that’s another story. As for the transplants, I can report that two of those heavy blobs of rare nature have stayed a part of my life all these decades. This is partly their story. (See Endnote 3.)

And in truth, in its early years this adventure was a letdown. I had faced ethical challenges at both ends. When I arrived with my shovel in the much higher quality Somme Prairie, where Jerry had directed me to plant these botanical refugees, I had to agonize over where to stab here. The obvious place would be most like where I found them – amid the finest prairie plant associates. But that would mean even more nasty shovel-cuts, degrading yet rarer nature here. It wasn’t going to happen.

To make this enterprise yet more dubious, Jerry had suggested I do it fast. Not only were the bulldozers soon to arrive in Palatine, but Somme would soon be dedicated into the Illinois Nature Preserve System. With that change, legal protections would become so strong that a “disturbance” such as a transplant would require jumping over prohibitively many bureaucratic hurdles. Once dedicated, as the sentiments and the rules then had it, you leave nature alone.  

Okay, I said, the lady-slippers deserve a chance. Okay, they need a fine prairie for a home. This lady-slipper was widespread on the original Chicago prairies. Only three of Somme’s seventy acres were now “Grade A”. The original lady-slippers here were likely elsewhere, on those now-degraded other 67 acres. The only way they could likely return was with our help.  

We had been cutting invasive trees here. Shade from those trees had destroyed much of the prairie that hadn’t earlier been destroyed by the farmer’s plow. Our goal was to nurse all seventy acres back to ecological health. We expected the prairie species to gradually repossess the ground where the invasives had shaded everything out.

So here was the compromise. I dug holes near the very high quality prairie, but not in it. A few feet from “Grade A” was bare soil, where we’d recently clear-cut killer trees and shrubs. Into these holes went the precious lady-slipper turfs. Soil was carefully nursed back in (not compacted) around the wounded edges. I amputated all the blooms – yet another violence. But the dug-up plant is stressed, and supporting flowers is not where it should put its energies. These three can re-bloom in future years. Now their challenge is to restore damaged roots and recover from their wounds – and spread over the years as the nearby prairie recovers. We were idealistic and hopeful – but na├»ve and ignorant.

Every spring we'd have great hopes – and anxieties – about those clumps. Would they survive in this new habitat? Would they reproduce and start a whole new lady-slipper community as the holy three acres grew to seventy? Two of the clumps actually got bigger for a few years, while the third gradually dwindled from 19 blooms to 2 blooms five years later – to zero blooms and zero leaves forever after. To protect the two, we put wire cages. We watched. Year after year. No babies. Just the two survivors.  

Spoiler alert: four decades later, those two lady-slipper clumps are thriving, but they seem to have produced no seeded offspring, and the very high quality prairie has not crossed the few feet of separation to surround them. They still sit among weeds, shrubs, and other “ecologically inferior” associates. Our somewhat “leave it alone” approach hasn’t worked for them.  

But yikes. A related, half-thought-out experiment, launched on a whim, would provoke a whole new drama.

I can’t find a record of the day I decided to be rash. I remember doing it – and feeling queasy about it. Normally I recorded restoration work in a spiral notebook. This log lists where seeds were gathered and broadcast, where brush was cut, etc. I shared the notebook and all its info and questions with the volunteer leaders. Openness was crucial to our “participatory democracy” culture. By the 1980s, we were becoming seen as a world model of something new. We committed ourselves to be true to science, to the ecosystem, and to each other.

I remember deciding not to record my rash act in the log book, because it would be too hard to explain. As Nature Preserve staff, I had the authority. But our team followed principles. I seemed to be violating them. Though we worked collectively on many more degraded sites, sharing seed among them so they could recover their diversity, Somme Prairie was different. We didn’t remove seed from it or bring seed to it. We especially did not plant anything (even seed from other parts of the site) in the Grade A areas. (We did remove seed from the Grade A, but only to restore species to the recovering acres that surrounded it. The very high quality habitat was considered too small to be sustainable without expansion.)

So, what was this dubious experiment that I didn’t log? I broadcast lady-slipper seeds into Grade A prairie. Shocking? It was to me, actually.

Here’s how conflicting thoughts brought me to throw caution and seed to the wind. The best and most sustainable lady-slipper populations seemed to be in very high quality prairie. Until I saw no seedlings from our two big transplants, I’d imagined that the dust-like seeds (in the few capsules that I’d sometimes notice on our two plants) ought to blow around and make more lady-slippers. But conservative species (like this one) may reproduce rarely. They live long and "are in no rush." Experts wonder if they’re adapted to rare (now rare-er) impacts of bison or catastrophically-intense fire or other now-missing forces and conditions. Perhaps the tiny seeds, sheltered by a canopy of taller plants by the time they mature,  mostly disperse only to the few feet of nearby degraded ground. And maybe they happen not to “like” those few ugly square feet closest to the transplants.

Another consideration. As with other orchids, this one reproduces only when “infected” by (or enters into a partnership with?) some fungus. Perhaps that fungus only thrives in the diverse high-quality system.

Yet another consideration. Many experts were telling us that the Grade A ecosystem was a “closed community.” Every niche was filled. Other plants could not penetrate. A “terminal state” had been reached over the millennia with roots and leaves filling all the available spaces. And yet? What if? Does science not believe in experiment? The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission had directed me to restore the lady-slipper to this prairie. I was official, empowered. Was a whiff of powdery seed not worth a try?

Did I make notes to record the beginnings of this little seeding experiment? I hope I’ll find them some day. Or maybe I thought the likelihood of new orchids was so remote and my memory was so clear, that I didn’t need a note? Either I’d see baby lady-slippers in a couple of years, or not.

In any case, I loved Somme Prairie, and I was as attentive as time allowed to its needs and charms. Somme was where I had fallen in love with prairie nature. Year in and year out I studied and cared for it. From respect, I mostly kept my big feet out of the Grade A areas during the growing season. One little footpath passed through one part of it, and I tiptoed down that path when I got a chance. Perhaps in response to our good care, in some years we noticed newly emerging rare species, otherwise unknown in the region. In 1987 I found the delicate oval milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia) surviving there; until then it had long been thought extinct in Illinois.  
Overpopulated deer are a major threat. In early spring, the shooting star leaves to the right have been half eaten.
In the dramatic center of this photo, ten lady-slipper sprouts are emerging.
If we don't cage them, they will likely be eaten too, which can kill the plant.  

Then one day in May 1997 as I walked the little Somme footpath, I was rocked by a lightning-bolt of tiny discovery. It dazed me briefly. What was I seeing!?! And what did it mean!?! Ten tiny baby lady-slippers bloomed in that patch of perfect prairie. Most of the little cuties had one flower and two leaves. This, I remembered, was where I had broadcast those seeds, perhaps a decade earlier. I hadn’t still expected to see them. I was thrilled and horrified. What were the implications? This “unmodified” original prairie was now modified. Forever?

In the twenty years since then, we’ve tried to monitor those plants annually, and mostly succeed. They are special. So far as we know, they are the first of their kind – prairie lady-slippers, planted and grown to flower. Horticulturists had tried and not succeeded so far. Here, nature did it. 

It’s challenging to do experiments that last for many decades. They’re rarely funded – especially in organismal botany. But we can do such work in the manner of the old-fashioned unfunded scientists, who just wanted to learn things. Our lady-slipper work is an example of such “citizen science,” imperfect though it is. It’s had to outlast jobs, places of residence, life goals, etc. It suffers from some apparently lost data. But the work suggests some tentative conclusions and testable hypotheses.
They hate living in cages. But they survive that way.
More support is needed for humane deer control. 

Even today, not much seems to be known about the longevity or time needed for reproduction of Cypripedium candidum in the wild. Extrapolating from other orchid species, it is hypothesized that, though an individual plant can produce ten thousand seeds per year, this species may reproduce rarely or sporadically.

In that first year, we found 10 plants, 65 stems, and 27 blossoms. In 1998 seven more plants emerged and then no new plants for two years. As might be suggested by a new population of young plants, most plants steadily grew larger until in 2002 there were 20 plants with 187 stems and 146 blossoms. To compare the dynamics of the population by various measures, see Table 1.  

Note that 2002 seems to have been a poor growing year. In 2003, blooms dropped from 146 to 26. Marlin Bowles, who has studied this species, says that his data suggest that the number of stems and blooms seems to be determined by the weather during the previous year.

Table 1. First Seeding Area

Total clumps
Total stems
Total blooms
B/av. lg. clump*
Stems + blooms**
New clumps

no data


no data


* Average number of blooms per clump in the ten clumps with the most blooms – appears to reflect short term weather and burn regime. Peak high numbers seem unchanged from 2001 to 2016.
** The number of stems plus the number of blooms – appears to be a good measure of overall population vigor. Small stems were not counted; a stem had to be at least half as tall as the leafy parts of nearby blooming stems to be counted. Since every bloom also has a stem, this index gives each blooming stem twice the weight of a sterile stem. Overall, this index continues to rise.
*** There are now so many tightly packed plants that our previous system is no longer good enough for us to be sure which were new. For the 2016 number we just subtracted the previous high count from the new high total. We do know that many of these plants were new because they appeared in places well away from where we'd seen them before.  

From 1998 to 2008, the vigor of this population seems to have been remarkably steady. For the first dozen years, the total number of plants had stayed between 15 and 21, with no apparent trend. Many plants have gone through periods where they could not be found (despite careful search of their exact locations) for a whole year – and then emerged again. Other orchids are also said to remain below ground (dormant? or building up resources parasitically or symbiotically?) for a year or more.
Every spring we find them, mark them, cage them, and record their beautiful numbers. 
During 2009 thorough 2011, 59 new plants appeared. These three years were especially good (as were 2001 and 2002) for all measures of population health. The bursts of higher numbers and new plants likely represent responses to the precipitation and burn regimes.

Unlike some orchids, the seeded lady-slippers (and the transplants) seem to be long-lived. All but one of the original seeded plants were in evidence in 2008 or 2009 and thus had lived for at least 11 years. As noted earlier, two of the three transplants have remained vigorous for four decades and were already mature plants when rescued.

The Second Seeding

I was irked not to be able to find the date of the first seeding. All I knew was that it had been far enough back for me to be stunned when I saw those first ten plants. How long had they taken to grow?

We did better on the second seeding. On November 9, 1997, my log book records the broadcasting of four full capsules (“pods”) of lady-slipper seed “in the large SE very high-quality area … in an arc following the wet mesic topo line.”

I waited anxiously for three years and then tiptoed in to check for seedlings or flowering plants. I wanted to cage any babies. Deer had been eating uncaged lady-slippers; so I looked very carefully for even a leaf. (Many uncaged plants we monitored had been eaten – and never re-appeared.)

I found no results from this seeding in 2000, 2001, 2002 and on. But I continued to look, with diminishing hopes. Then, another bitty ecstasy, on May 14, 2007, two three-inch stems appeared 15 meters apart, each with one petite lady-slipper bloom. I caged both, in tiny-baby-cages.
Some clumps have dozens to as many as 47 blooms, despite intense competition from very high quality prairie.
At some point, I suppose, we remove the cages and see what happens? 

So far I’ve found no records from 2008. But by May 2009, one of these plants four taller stems and  four blooms. The other had four stems and two blooms. But we also found 30 additional plants – in a distinct arcing line about two meters wide and about 45 meters long – following the route I had walked, opening and shaking seed capsules, a decade earlier. 

Table 2. Second Seeding Area

Total plants
Total stems
Total blooms
Stems + blooms**
Av. # of blooms*







* Per plant in the ten plants with the most blooms.
** The number of stems plus the number of blooms. This index may be the best single measure of population vigor. Small stems were not counted; to be counted, a stem had to be at least half as tall as nearby blooming stems (not counting the blooms). Since every bloom also has a stem, this weighted count gives each blooming stem twice the weight of each sterile stem.
*** The 2016 and 2017 numbers are preliminary. We have the data, but we have to check and re-check our tabulations. Hope to have a more complete and detailed report ready soon. For you.

There's a lot more to report on. Hope to have more detailed and technical reports ready soon. (See Endnotes 4 and 5.)

Some of What We Learned

  1. Grade A areas aren’t so “tight” as sometimes claimed. This conservative lady-slipper fit right in to one of the highest quality surviving eastern tallgrass prairies. High quality areas may have always been more dynamic than we think. Or the areas we now consider Grade A may be lacking some of the highest conservatives.
  2. In the case documented here, it took most prairie lady-slippers more than ten years to grow from seed to flower. They seemed to emerge as a full-grown leaf and often a flower in the first year above ground. Unlike most conservative plants, they did not start as tiny plants and get just a bit bigger, year after year. They seemed to live underground, mysteriously, with their fungus, for many years. It then took about five additional years between first little flower and mature clump (sometimes with ten or twenty flowering stems – or dozens to as many as 46 leaves-only stems). 
  3. Caging from deer made a “life or death” difference for this species at this site.
  4. It may be appropriate to revise or clarify endangered species laws and principles to facilitate restoration. In the absence of clarity, some people are experimenting with various degrees of oversight, under varying principles, and often with less than optimal reporting, often in semi-isolation rather than in much-preferred collaboration, in part because people don’t know what the rules are or think they’re counterproductively restrictive. As a result, some people say “What the hell?! This work should be done. Permits are too hard to get. So I’ll just work under the radar as much as possible.” Other people fail to do good work that they believe would be helpful because it might be ‘controversial.’ Both approaches can impede learning and conservation.

Endnote 1
So many reasons: a) most endangered species are rare for a reason and won't survive in any or most new places they might be moved to, b) most of what was important about that prairie was the hundreds of other plants and animals that survived there, c) the plant was just starting to bloom; that made it easier for me to find them; but it's the worst possible time to "rescue" a plant; the best time in in winter when it's dormant, e) and there are so many other reasons. For example, if you care about conservation, it's usually better to spend your time saving what exists, or planting seeds. I rue writing this part of the story, as kind of setting a bad example. But, that's the story. And it's a good story in the end.

Endnote 2
When I went to see the engineers at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, who would be directing the bulldozers, I asked to see the plans. They told me many times and in many ways that it was too late to change anything. With a friendly smile, I kept asking. When they finally complied, I took a quick look and said, "The Prairie's just in this little corner. All you're doing to it piling some spoil there and later bulldozing it back to make a ski hill. The rare prairie area will end up as it was, but with the prairie dead. Why don't you just pile the spoil in this other corner, and save the prairie as a part of the park?" And they said, "Oh. Good idea."

For more about a more recent drama at Palatine Prairie, see

The truly much more important prairie they owned was Lockport Prairie, and we saved that too, so chill and rejoice!

Endnote 3
An additional puzzle has emerged from the original transplants. As noted above, they seemed not to reproduce but lived as large solid clumps for three decades. Then, in 2010, one of these plants seemed to have produced additional plants, a few inches away from the original clump. Were they suckered offshoots – or new plants from seed? Is it possible that this dust-like seed only managed to travel 5 to 10 inches from the original plants? There are no other plants for 20 meters or so in any direction. By 2017, no large clumps remained. Now both of these original transplants appear to have broken up into separate smaller “plants” – perhaps better called “clumps.” In the journal Lankesteriana 7(1-2) 2007, Carol Wake writes: Cypripedium candidum … reproduces both by seed and adventitious buds from older roots and rhizomes.” For Wake's article see:

Endnote 4
We later also transplanted many other lady-slipper clumps from the former Chevy Chase prairie, that actually was being bulldozed. We didn't have to dig them up. We pulled them out of piles of destruction bedlam. Most of the transplants died from too much browsing by overpopulated deer before we figured out what was going on. Once we did, we started installing cages, and a few plants recovered.

Other seeding experiments: In one promising-looking small, good-quality remnant area (that had not been identified as Grade A), where seed was broadcast once in 1997, no orchids have appeared. In a third Grade A area where seed was broadcast on that same day in 1997 and again in 2008, twenty-one young orchids appeared in 2016.

Endnote 5
A more detailed and technical report on this experiment is in preparation and will be referenced here when ready. There are many experiments and much more fun data. But we wanted to get at least this first draft out to people to consider before another winter/writing season passed. When the growing season starts, we are stewards and gatherers of data and we tend to leave this thinking work for winter.


Sampling, caging, and data wrangling by Linda Masters, Robbie Sliwinski, Lisa Culp, Sai Ramakrishna, Eriko Kojima, and Stephen Packard
Excel magic performed on data by Linda Masters
Report by Stephen Packard
Thanks for proofing by Kathleen Garness and Eriko Kojima

Draft: Feb 26, 2018