Lady’s Tresses Orchids in Prairie Seedings

I love mysteries. 

I don’t know much about orchids, but my understanding is that they can be difficult to establish in restored (reconstructed) prairie, largely because they rely on mycorrhizal fungi that are unlikely to be present in soils after years of row crop agriculture.  Regardless of that information, or maybe because of it, (I can be somewhat obstinate) we keep harvesting seed from nodding lady’s tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua) whenever we can find the plants after they’ve gone to seed in the fall. 

…and darned if they’re not showing up in our prairie seedings!  To date, I’ve found Spiranthes in at least four separate prairie seedings in our Platte River Prairies.  When I saw the first plant, I came up with all kinds of explanations for how it might have occurred, none of which included our seed (there was some bulldozer activity near where the plant was, so surely some plant material and soil came in with the dozer…).  By the third and fourth sites, though, I finally came around to the idea that the plants had to be a result of our seed.  I’m still not sure of that, but it’s pretty hard to think of other reasonable explanations.

We've found nodding lady's tresses plants like this one in at least four prairie seedings now. Those seedings were planted in 1995, 1995, 1997, and 1999, respectively.

So – what’s going on?  Is there something special about the sandy loam soils that allowed myccorhizal fungi to survive many decades of row crop agriculture?  Are those fungi somehow making their way into the soils once prairie vegetation establishes?  Are orchids less reliant on those fungi than we thought – or maybe just able to use a wider variety of fungi species than we thought?

I don’t have any answers, just lots of questions.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you about your experiences with Spiranthes species in prairie seedings.  I’m also hoping that some of you know more about myccorhizal fungi than I do (I still have to check the spelling every time I type it…) and can explain what I’m seeing.


21 thoughts on “Lady’s Tresses Orchids in Prairie Seedings

  1. HI Chris,
    I work with Stephen Packard of the Chicago Region Audubon on occasion. He has found the same result after harvesting orchid seed and mixing them with other native seed for broadcast. He has been told it was a useless gesture, but he wanted to find out what would happen. And it might have taken up to 5 years to see new plants, but he has been seeing the orchid establish. I am not sure which species, I think it might have been some type of Lady Slipper. I think a part of the reason could be that the myccorhizal species most likely to be suitable for Orchids are not as rare as thought. But I think a more common theory is that orchids can form relationships with many more species under the right conditions then originally hypothesized.

    I think this is a fascinating area and I hope more research goes into answering questions on the relationship between different functional groups of native plants and the soil community.

    Brook Herman

  2. Chris,

    I’m fascinated by orchids, and their fungal symbiosis, and how such a tiny seed can possibly produce enough plant material to grow, but I have no idea why some species are more disturbance tolerant… It seems that Spiranthes (esp. cernua) like disturbed areas and aren’t confined to remnants. There is a fellow by my office that goes out to his (alfalfa) hay field every fall to find the lady’s tresses that grow there.

    I saw Stephen Packard present once and I distinctly remember him mentioning that he collected little white lady’s slippers and scattered them where he thought they should grow (in remnants and reconstructions?). I know others have been successful in interseeding prairie fringed orchids in established reconstructions by doing the same thing. I think the myth that orchids won’t grow in reconstructions is ‘busted’.

    It’s likely that since it has been dogma that seeding orchids in reconstructions is useless, that we don’t see many orchids in reconstructions! Maybe the myccorhizal symbionts are plentiful and don’t limit germination… maybe other factors that affect the microclimate (such as established, frequently disturbed prairie plants, soil moisture/chemistry) are more limiting than fungi presence/absence in providing the appropriate conditions for seedling establishment? Especially for Cypripedium, Platanthera, etc. (Lady’s Tresses might be a good exception).

    Matt Fisher

  3. Spiranthes cernua is a lovely little orchid that is reliably found in mowed roadsides and two-track paths around us in NW Indiana. That puts it in the “less conservative” category but makes seed collection nice and easy. It is growing in our restorations at Kankakee Sands; could be growing as a result of being seeded or could be growing on its own.
    A few years ago, Liparis loeselii was all over one of our restorations. That restoration was about 10 years old at that point, but we had not ever seeded L. loeselii there. I spoke with Indiana’s Heritage Botanist and author of “Orchids of Indiana,” Mike Homoya about it and he commented that he observes L. loeselii as a colonizer in several parts of the state. The seed is wind-dispersed.
    Within a mile of Kankakee Sands on private property, I found Liparis liliifolia in an old field among weedy goldenrods.
    Are these weedy/unconservative orchids that way because they are not dependent on a specific mycorrhizal partner, but are generalists? Or are they dependent on a specific fungus that is pretty ubiquitous? Is it something about the adult plants that makes them adapted for more ruderal conditions?
    Within 5 miles of Kankakee Sands there are Platanthera orchid populations, at least 2 species. Those haven’t been observed colonizing the restorations. Too far away? Too many trees inbetween? Missing mycorrhizal fungi? Not enough time elapsed?
    I know another orchid restoration propagation technique (for the conservative species) is to place seeds in a pouch made of pantyhose and bury this pouch in proximity to mother plants of that same orchid species. After a few years, return and dig up the pouch. The seeds have germinated and formed protocorms, which can then be transplanted to a soil mix and grown up to a stage of being ready for transplant. I haven’t done this myself, but we have received plants that were produced this way. They didn’t survive after transplanting, and they were about 4 years old in their containers at that time. Wrong site selection?
    I think a good literature search would help answer some of these questions.

  4. We have had a large number of Small white ladyslipper take hold in our 1993 MN prairie restoration, I first noticed them about 2005. The restoration does have some interspersed prairie remnants so this is most likely the source. I counted 207 locations last spring (2010) on a zig-zag walk over a small portion of the restored acres.

  5. I have been told the Spiranthes cernua complex will bloom within 3 years from seeding.
    Roger Hotham – Volunteer at Bluff Spring Fen in Illinois

    I have seen Cypripedium candidum established in a Chicago region restoration.
    No seed was introduced to the site. It move in on it’s own.
    Data has demonstrated that regular burning helps increase the size of Cypripedium candidum

    At Nachusa they have had success establishing Platanthera leucophaea from seed into
    a restoration that was old agricultural field only a few years prior.

    It is well known that a number of common fungi can host orchids. With their millions of
    small seeds it should be no surprise that orchids are champions at colonizing new area quickly after
    even sever disturbances. Indeed, many species require disturbance like fire, changing water levels,
    or blowing sand to create suitable habitat. The best way to establish orchids seems to be to spread
    seed. If the habitat is suitable, they will grow.


  6. Hi Chris,
    I just discoverd lady tresses today on the Girl Scout Island at Camp Maha. It’s the first time I’ve seen them, we burnt the area 2 years ago. I’m excited to see them, I’m not sure if the fire helped. It’s likely that is the first time this area has seen fire in many years.

    Mark D.

    • Hey Mark – glad to hear you got a good fire done and that you found an orchid. Pretty cool to find them. I found a few more in new places today in restored prairies – including 4 in a heavily grazed site.

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  8. I have been restoring an 8 acre mini prairie in western Missouri,,,I have never seeded for ladies tresses, but in the last couple years I am noticing them in the fall here and there, within a one acre area. I burn every year, so maybe that helped bring them out. The area was cropped many years ago and planted in fescue, which I removed and planted native warm season grass. Now I am collecting seeds of any forbs I can find to plant after my early December burn this year. I am waiting for the ladies tresses to dry up more before I try to collect seed from them. Can you share with me how to do that? I’m not sure where to find the ladies tresses seed. Should I wait till first frost to take them apart? I dissected one of the flowers and am not sure which part is the seed!

    • Susan – good for you! Sounds like a great project, and great to hear that you’re seeing orchids! It’s intriguing to me that you’re getting them without seeding them.

      To harvest the seed, you’ll want to wait until the plant stems are dry and then just take the whole stem. The seeds are very very small – like dust. The easiest way to go is to just crumble up the dry stem and plant all of it. The seeds (assuming the plant made any) will mixed up with the rest of the plant pieces. Or you can try to open up on of the capsules and look for the tiny dustlike seeds.

      Good luck!

  9. I just harvested the dry stems of my five lady’s tresses plants. I opened up a couple capsules, and yes, they are filled with a light brown dust,,,,I assume this dust are numerous seeds in each capsule? My prairie plots have just been burnt,,,,would it work to plant each capsule seperately , in the proximity of the existing plants? Maybe they have a better chance in the area where previous plants are thriving. Also, is it better to plant seeds now and allow them to go through the winter freeze and thaw? Should I just press them on the soil surface, not cover them?

    • Hi Susan,

      I don’t have enough experience with orchids to give you good advice. They have shown up in our seedings when we just mix the “dust” in with our other seeds and plant them during the winter. But I can’t say that was the best way to go. My GUESS is that you could just sprinkle the dust on your burned prairie and you’d get some to come in. Maybe raking a little after seeding to get good seed/soil contact would help. But that’s just a guess. If the area around the existing plants is favorable, I’d think the plants would spread on their own. It might make more sense for you to experiment with other areas if you want the plant to spread further around the prairie. Again – just guessing! Good luck.

  10. I had no clue as to what these were until my neighbor pointed it out to me. Don’t know how it got there. It was land where my father farmed decades ago. Now it’s part of our front yard which overall encompasses a total of 5 acres. Occasionally it floods there and recently as a result of flooding we were unable to mow the grass and now I’m glad because I would never have known about these plants.

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