The Orchid that made Manitoba Famous: Western Prairie fringed-orchid


A few Years ago there was a native orchid conference held in Winnipeg which attracted orchid enthusiasts, some might say orchids nuts, from around North America and even some from Europe.  I was one of them. This orchid was the star of the show– the Western Prairie fringed-orchid (Platanthera praeclara).

This is one the flowers listed on the endangered species list  for Manitoba. The Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie is the best place in the world to see these orchids! This prairie contains from 750 to 24,000 flowering plants of this species each year in an area of about 2,000 hectares. It is the only place in Canada where these flowers still grow naturally. It is our treasure. Sadly, this year when I went to my favorite spot I could only find a half dozen in bloom where there should have been hundreds. I did not have time to check other spots.

The primary cause of failure to flower is late spring frosts that can kill the buds of the flowers. This does not usually destroy the plant. This may have happened this year. Fall precipitation may be linked to flowering in spring as well. The more water in fall the better the flowering in spring. Many cactuses follow a similar pattern.

In the United States this flower can be found in 7 states but only in about 500 hectare in total. In the entire US they have only about 50 to 2,000 flowering plants each year. That is a pittance compared to us. That is why so many Americans come here to see them. A few years ago there was a conference on the plant in Crookston Minnesota near their own Tall Grass Prairie but the attendees came to Manitoba to see ours. Who could blame them?


It was interesting that the first documented occurrence of this plant in Manitoba occurred in 1985. In fact they were discovered in one day by a scientist who also discovered the Small Purple Fringed orchid at Buffalo Point where I have a cottage. It is remarkable that no one knew they were here since at the right time, like early July, they stick out gloriously in fields and ditches around here. It is surprising that such a showy plant lived so inconspicuously. How was that possible?

We should be proud that in Manitoba we have the most of these magnificent plants. They are all found within a couple of miles of the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. Nowhere else. They can be found on the Reserve, in ditches, and on private land.

It was not that long ago when scientists thought there was only 1 species of Fringed Orchid. In 1986 a scientist Charles Sheviak realized there were 2 separate species of very similar orchids. For one, there was the Western Fringed-orchid that we have here and the smaller Eastern Prairie fringed-orchid that is found in eastern Canada. He realized that they were not pollinated the same way. Therefore they had a different pollinator and must be different species. I had the privilege of walking in the Woodridge bog with Mr. Sheviak when Manitoba hosted the first Native Orchid Conference of North America. He is like the Michael Jordan of North American orchids. Sadly, none of his greatness rubbed off on me.


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