A stout, erect plant 1–4 feet tall that can remain dormant in the soil during drought periods. Blooms mid-June through early July. Flowers are creamy to greenish white. Each flower has a hood-shaped petal with 3 deeply fringed lobes and a long nectar spur in back. The blossoms occur in showy clusters at the top of each plant. Leaves 2–5, elongated, keeled, along an angular stem.
Similar species: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (P. leucophaea) is very similar to the western, and at one time they were considered a single species. Eastern prairie fringed orchid has rounded stems and smaller flowers than the western species. It has been known from the eastern half of the state and is also a federally threatened species. Ragged orchis or ragged orchid (P. lacera) is smaller and has greener flowers, a narrower flower spike, and a shorter nectar spur. Of the 8 species of fringed orchids in Missouri, it is perhaps the commonest.
Height: 10–33 inches.
In the past, found across the western part of the state. Now it is known only from a few locations in northwest Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
Grows on moist sections of upland and bottomland prairies. This species, like the closely related eastern prairie fringed orchid, has been extirpated from much of its former range due to the plowing of native prairies and overgrazing. Both of Missouri’s prairie fringed orchids are federally listed as Threatened. The biggest threat to the populations in northwest Missouri are the invasion of prairies by woody species and the possibility of prairies being plowed.
Federally Threatened and State Endangered. It is illegal to remove these from the wild.
Missouri’s orchids, even the relatively common ones, are not often seen, so the joy of discovering one in nature is a rare pleasure. Prairie fringed orchids are part of our state’s wild heritage, and they and their habitats need to be protected.
Prairie fringed orchids are most fragrant at night to attract sphinx moths, their only pollinators. One of the reasons why native tallgrass prairies are so valuable is their amazing diversity, and this species is a rare but unique component of prairie habitat.