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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Prairie Fringed Orchid (Habenaria leucophaea)

Few North Dakota plants can match the fragrance and floral beauty of the prairie fringed orchid. Unfortunately, the species is restricted to low native grasslands in the sandy glacial river delta of Cass, Richland, and Ransom Counties. The plant once ranged from Maine to North Dakota south to Louisiana and Kansas, but now is rare and categorized as threatened on both the federal and North Dakota list of endangered species.

Prairie fringed orchid stands one to three feet tall from fleshy perennial roots. The basal leaves are up to eight inches long, but stem leaves are progressively shorter and narrower toward the top of the plant. About fifteen to twenty flowers are borne in a spike atop the stem. Each flower has a creamy-white lip with long fringes and an inch-long spur. Fruit is a capsule containing many small seeds.

It is fortunate that prairie fringed orchid is mostly avoided by livestock. The plant responds well to prairie fires and mowing during the dormant season. These practices benefit the plants through reductions in litter accumulations which create too much shade. Some Habenarias are used for foods and medicines, but I could find no reference to use of prairie fringed orchid in this regard.

The 400 or so species of Habenaria are members of the orchid family (Orchidaceae) which is the largest in the world, with nearly 500 genera and about 20,000 species, mostly tropical. The generic name stems from the Latin habenula, "a narrow strap or rein," in allusion to the strap-shaped lip on some species. The specific epithet leucophaea means "ashy" in reference to the light-colored flowers. Prairie fringed orchid was first described for science by the eminent English botanist-naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859).

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