CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Platanthera leucophaea

Pati Vitt

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CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Platanthera leucophaea

Common Names: 
Eastern prairie fringed orchid, prairie fringed orchid, prairie orchis, prairie white-fringed orchid, white-fringed orchid
Growth Habit: 
CPC Number: 


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Platanthera leucophaeaenlarge
Photographer: Pati Vitt
Image Owner: Chicago Botanic Garden

Platanthera leucophaeaenlarge
Photographer: Pati Vitt
Image Owner: Chicago Botanic Garden

Platanthera leucophaea is Fully Sponsored
Primary custodian for this plant in the CPC National Collection of Endangered Plants is: 
Marlin L. Bowles contributed to this Plant Profile.

Platanthera leucophaea

P. leucophaea is one of the largest and showiest of the native North American orchids. It is one of at least 200 North American orchid species, and is currently listed as Federally Threatened. This species has declined in the United States by more than 70 percent from original county records. This decline is due mainly to habitat loss for cropland and pasture. The 30 percent of original populations that remain are threatened by non-native species, illegal collection, and continued habitat loss. Most remaining populations are small (fewer than 50 plants), and only about 20 percent of these have adequate protection and management. The species is also found in Canada, but is now known from only 12 populations. (USFWS 1999, Brownell 1984)

Eastern prairie fringed orchid is a perennial orchid, with an upright leafy stem extending up to 40 inches high from an underground tuber. Its leaves sheath the stem, and are 2-8 inches long, elliptical to lance-shaped, and progressively larger toward the stem base. The inflorescence extends above the leaves, with 5-40 creamy white flowers subtended by lance-shaped bracts. The flowers are distinguished by a 3-parted fringed lip 1.5-3 cm long and a nectar spur 1-2 inches long.

This species has a close relative, Platanthera praeclara, which occurs to the west of the Mississippi River. This species is aptly named the Western prairie fringed orchid, and each have somewhat different flower morphologies, likely because they evolved in the presence of different pollinator species. (Sheviak and Bowles 1986)

Distribution & Occurrence

State Range
State Range of  Platanthera leucophaea
  The eastern prairie fringed orchid requires full sun for optimum growth and reproduction. It occupies tallgrass silt-loam or sand prairies, sedge meadows, fens, lakeshore grasslands, and occasionally sphagnum bogs in the eastern part of its range. (USFWS 1999)

These habitats occur across six physiographic regions. The unglaciated Ozark region supports sedge meadow habitat, from which Platanthera leucophaea is apparently extirpated. Kansan glacial soils support prairie habitat, primarily west of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi River, Wisconsinan glacial soils support prairie, sedge meadow, and peatland habitat. The lake plains of the Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie basins support prairie habitat. Disjunct eastern populations also occur in unglaciated sedge meadow, and formerly occurred in unglaciated prairie in Oklahoma.

  The eastern prairie fringed orchid formerly ranged westward into eastern Iowa and Missouri, with a disjunct type locality in southeastern Oklahoma. It occurred eastward in a narrowing peninsula across southern Wisconsin, northern and central Illinois, southern Michigan, northern Indiana and Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania, western New York, and adjacent southern Ontario. Disjunct populations also occurred in New Jersey, Virginia and Maine. (USFWS 1999)

Number Left
  As stated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Recovery Plan:
The eastern prairie fringed orchid has declined more than 70% from original county records in the United States.
Most remaining habitats are small, with fewer than 50 plants, and are not representative of the once vast prairie populations of this orchid.
A few populations, primarily in successional vegetation, number in the hundreds or thousands.
About 60 populations are extant in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Maine.
Plants have not been relocated in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Oklahoma.


Global Rank:  
Guide to Global Ranks
Federal Status:  
Guide to Federal Status
Recovery Plan:  

State/Area Protection
  State/Area Rank Status Date  
  Canada (Ontario) N2 SC 11/1/2001  
  Illinois S1 E 1/1/2002  
  Indiana SX SX 11/1/2002  
  Iowa E 2/1/2002  
  Louisiana SR 9/7/1988  
  Maine S1 E 7/1/1999  
  Michigan S1 E 3/1/1999  
  Missouri SX X 1/1/2002  
  New Jersey SX.1 4/24/1991  
  New York SH V 2/17/1989  
  Ohio T 1/1/2001  
  Oklahoma SH 5/22/2001  
  Pennsylvania SX PX 6/11/2002  
  Virginia S1 E 10/23/1990  
  Wisconsin S1 E 6/23/1992  

Conservation, Ecology & Research

Ecological Relationships
  Platanthera leucophaea occupies a wide range of soil pH conditions. Tallgrass silt loam and sand prairie soils are usually calcareous, with pH levels of 6-7.5. Soils tend to be more acid in lake borders, fens, sedge meadows, and marshes in the eastern parts of its range, with pH levels ranging from 5.3-6.5. In graminoid fens, this orchid appears to avoid highly calcareous conditions, occupying substrates that have poor to intermediate nutrient levels. Plants found in sphagnum tamarack bogs may root below the sphagnum layer in a more calcareous substrate, or may occur in younger advancing sedge mats.

Both high precipitation levels and fire have been suggested to promote flowering of Platanthera leucophaea in tallgrass prairie habitat, but moisture levels appear to be an overriding factor. Over a twelve-year period in Illinois, percent flowering in P. leucophaea populations was higher in wetland habitat and was positively correlated with growing season rainfall. Over time, flowering plants also appeared more quickly in wetland habitat after a severe 1988 drought. Thus, burning would most likely promote flowering in tallgrass prairie wetlands or during years of high growing season rainfall.

White fringed orchids require hawkmoth (SPHINGIDAE) pollination for sexual reproduction. The flowers are nocturnally fragrant and place pollinia on the proboscises of hawkmoths as they ingest a high-volume nectar resource from long nectar spurs. As in most orchids, the flowers are morphologically adapted to outcrossing, but plants appear to be self-compatible and probably receive high levels of self-pollination in small populations when pollinators revisit inflorescences. (Bowles 1983, 1985)

Specific requirements for Platanthera leucophaea seedling establishment are not well known. Seed germination may be light-inhibited, with dormancy broken by darkness and moist stratification; but successful seedling establishment requires mycorrhizal development with a favorable soil-inhabiting fungus. Seedlings may persist for several years as subterranean protocormbs, receiving nutrients from the fungus. This relationship becomes symbiotic once the plants can produce leaves, and it is likely not species-specific for orchids or fungi.

Disturbance may be important in Platanthera leucophaea seedling establishment. Patch disturbance regimes or early-successional vegetation stages are critical for seedling establishment of disturbance-adapted plants, and terrestrial orchids are well known for colonization following disturbance. Platanthera leucophaea populations reach highest densities in disturbed habitats or early- to mid-successional plant communities. Soil fungi responsible for orchid seedling establishment might also respond to similar disturbance or successional patterns. Under apparently favorable conditions or in successional habitats, flowering P. leucophaea have appeared as soon as 5 years after seed dispersal.

The root systems of terrestrial orchids are reduced, and evidently require mycorrhizae for proper water uptake and nutrition especially under stress. (Annual tuber regeneration in orchids may also require reinfection by mycorrhizae. Thus the stability of orchid populations is closely related to the ecological conditions of their mycorrhizae, which may be in part regulated by the increased mycorrhizal productivity that occurs after spring burning of prairie. This relationship is dynamic; orchids occasionally enter dormancy (possibly with mycorrhizal nutrition), or decline as mycorrhizae become reduced. Although Platanthera leucophaea is pre-adapted to dormant season disturbances such as prairie fires, growing season damage to vegetative material may weaken plants by limiting food storage.

  Threats include (USFWS 1999):
Most Platanthera leucophaea populations have been lost through destruction and modification of habitat - primarily conversion of habitat to cropland and pasture.
Alteration of hydrology, fire protection, and development now pose the greatest threats to this species' habitat. Ditching or tile drainage reduces soil moisture, which impacts orchid growth and flowering and successional changes. Fire protection reduces orchid flowering, causes deterioration of vegetation. Urban development is becoming an increasingly important cause of habitat destruction.
Competition from exotic species, especially in wetlands, may reduce orchid populations. Invasions of wetlands by purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), and reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) also aggressively invades are the primary causes of this process.
Illegal collection of plants may have minor, but significant, impacts on smaller populations. Because native terrestrial orchids are rarely grown from seed, adult plants are often sought for commercial purposes, or for gardens.
Wide-scale use of insecticides may negatively impact hawkmoths, this orchid's only known pollinator.

Current Research Summary
  Research is focusing on genetic analysis, demographic monitoring, reproductive biology, and propagation and introduction techniques.
Genetic surveys using allozyme and RAPDs techniques have found that populations may have relatively high levels of genetic diversity, and that genetic differentiation may occur among populations.
Demographic monitoring has shown that most plants have a short life-span, often flowering only once. As a result, seed production appears to be an important life history stage and demographic process in population maintenance.
Research on reproductive biology is examining how different levels of outcrossing affect seed production and seed viability, and how seed production (when enhanced by hand pollination) may affect the longevity of individual plants. (Vitt 2000)
Reintroduction using dispersal of seeds from hand pollinated plants has shown that flowering plants may appear in as few as three years. (Packard 1991; Keibler 1994, 1995, 1998, 2000)
Laboratory work has identified mycorrhizal fungi species associated with plants, and has developed techniques for propagating seedlings in association with these soil fungi. (Zettler et a. 2001)

Current Management Summary
  Management of tallgrass prairie populations has focused on using prescribed burning to maintain vegetation composition and structure, and to promote flowering of orchids.
Management to reduce invasion by alien species, primarily smooth buckthorn, has used cutting and application of herbicides.
Some hydrology management has focused on removal of drain tiles to restore original drainage.

Research Management Needs
  Continued demographic monitoring is needed to provide a better understanding of the viability of orchid populations. Important questions are whether small populations are viable, and whether large population that occur on successional habitats can be maintained.

More research is needed to understand the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and the longevity of orchids.

Ex Situ Needs
  Work is needed to determine whether ex-situ populations can be maintained, and whether propagation techniques can be developed to produce propagules that can be used for restoration.


Books (Single Authors)

2000. Missouri Plants of Conservation Concern. Jefferson City, MO: Conservation Commission of Missouri--Missouri Department of Conservation.

Case, F.W. 1987. Orchids of the western Great Lakes region, revised edition. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science Bulletin 48.

Correll, D.S. 1950. Native orchids of North America north of Mexico. Waltham, MA: Chronica Botanica Co.

Herkert, J.; Ebinger, J.E. 2002. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois: Status and distribution. Springfield, IL: Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. 161p.

Homoya, M.A. 1991. Orchids of Indiana. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Academy of Science.

Luer, C.A. 1975. The native orchids of the United States and Canada excluding Florida. New York: The New York Botanical Garden. 361p.

Zanoni, T.A.; Gentry, J.L., Jr.; Tyrl, R.J.; Risser, P.G. 1979. Endangered and threatened plants of Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. 64p.

Books (Sections)

Hadley, G. 1989. Host-fungus relationships in orchid mycorrhizal systems. In: Pritchard, H.W., editor. Modern Methods in orchid conservation: The role of physiology, ecology and management. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England. p 5-71.

Kartesz, J.T. 1999. A synonymized checklist of the vascular flora of the U.S., Canada, and Greenland. In: Kartesz, J.T.; Meacham, C.A., editors. Synthesis of the North American Flora, Version 1.0. North Carolina Botanical Garden. Chapel Hill, NC.

Pavlovic, N.B. 1994. Disturbance-dependent persistence of rare plants: anthropogenic impacts and restoration implications. In: Bowles, M.L.; Whelan, C., editors. Recovery and Restoration of Endangered Species. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. p 159-193.

Stoutamire, W.P. 1996. Seeds and seedlings of Platathera leucophaea (Orchidaceae). In: Allen, C., editor. Proceedings of the North American Native Terrestrial Orchid-Propagation and Production Congerence. National Arboretum. Washington, D.C. p 55-61.

Conference Proceedings

Pleasants, J.M. The effects of spring burns on the western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara). Proceedings of the 14th North American Prairie Conference; Kansas State University Press, Manhattan, KS. In: Hart, B.C., editor. 1995. p 67-73.

Electronic Sources

OHDNR. (2001). Rare Native Ohio Plants: 2000-2001 Status List and Profiles. Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/dnap/heritage/Rare_Species2000.htm. Accessed: 2002.

WIS. (2002). Wisconsin Vascular Plants--on species, including maps and photos. Wisconsin State Herbarium: University of Wisconsin - Madison (WIS). http://www.botany.wisc.edu/wisflora/. Accessed: 2002.

Journal Articles

Balis-Larsen, M.; Dauphine, C.; Jewell, S. 1999. Canada and U.S. Save Shared Species at Risk. Endangered Species Bulletin. 24, 2: 22-23.

Bowles, M.L. 1983. The Tallgrass Prairie Orchids Platanthera leucophaea (Nutt.) Lind. and Cypripedium candidum Muhl. ex Wild.: Some Aspects of Their Status, Biology, and Ecology, and Implications Toward Management. Natural Areas Journal. 3, 4: 14-37.

Bowles, M.L. 1992. Status and population fluctuations of the eastern prairie fringed orchid [Platanthera leucophaea (Nutt.) Lindl.] in Illinois. Erigenia. 12: 26-40.

Bowles, M.L.; Jacobs, K.; Zettler, L.; Delaney, T. 2002. Crossing effects on seed viability and experimental germination of the Federal Threatened Platanthera leucophaea (Orchidaceae). Rhodora. 104: 14-30.

Catling, P.M.; Brownell, V.R. 1999. Platanthera lacera leucophaea, a new cryptic natural hybrid,and a key to northeastern North American fringed-orchids. Canadian Journal of Botany. 77, 8: 1144-1149.

Currier, P.J. 1984. Response of prairie fringed orchid to fire and reduction in grazing (Nebraska). Restoration and Management Notes. 2: 28.

Curtis, J.T. 1939. The relation of specificity of orchid mycorrhizal fungi to the problem of symbiosis. American Journal of Botany. 26: 390-399.

Hadley, G. 1970. Non-specificity of symbiotic infection in orchid mycorrhizae. New Phytologist. 69: 1015-1023.

Jacobson, G.L.; Almquist-Jacobson, H.; Winne, J.C. 1991. Conservation of rare plant habitat: insights from the recent history of vegetation and fire at Crystal Fen, northern Maine, USA. Biological Conservation. 57: 287-314.

Pleasants, J.M.; Moe, S. 1993. Floral Display Size and Pollination of the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, Platanthera praeclara (Orchidaceae). Lindleyana. 8, 1: 32.

Schwegman, J.E. 1988. Illinoensis. Newsletter of the Illinois Native Plant Conservation Program. 4, 1: 4?.

Sheviak, C. 1974. An Introduction to the Ecology of the Illinois Orchidaceae. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers. XIV: 89.

Sheviak, C.J. 1987. On The Occurrence Of Platanthera leucophaea In Louisiana And Arkansas. Rhodora. 89, 860: 347-350.

Sheviak, C.J.; Bowles, M.L. 1986. The prairie fringed orchids: a pollinator-isolated species pair. Rhodora. 88: 267-290.

Sieg, C.H.; King, R.M. 1995. Influence of Environmental Factors and Preliminary Demographic Analyses of a Threatened Orchid, Platanthera praeclara. American Midland Naturalist. 134, 2: 307-323.

USFWS. 1981. New Document Presents Assessment of Native Plant Vulnerability. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 6, 1: 1, 4-5.

USFWS. 1989. Determination of threatened status for eastern and western prairie fringed orchids. Federal Register. 54, 187: 39857-39862.

USFWS. 1995. Recovery Updates. Endangered Species Bulletin. 20, 6: 26.

Wiesner, M.B. 1995. Natives at Risk: Prairie fringed orchids. American Horticulturist. 74: 11.

Zettler, L.; Bowles, M.; Jacobs, K.; Stewart, S. 2001. Mycorrhizal Fungi and Cold-assisted Symbiotic Germination of the Federally Threatened Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid Platanthera leucophaea (Nuttall) Lindley. American Midland Naturalist. 145: 168-175.

Newspaper Articles

2001 July 12, 2001. College student may be savior of rare orchid. Daily Chronicle; DeKalb, IL.


1999. Draft conservation strategy for P. leucophaea. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Alverson, W.S. 1981. Unpublished report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Wisconsin status of Platanthera leucophaea. Madison, Wisconsin: Scientific Areas Section, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Armstrong, D.; Fritz, M.; Miller, P.; Byers, O. 1997. Population and Habitat Viability Assessment Workshop for the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara) Final Report. Apple Valley, MN: Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.

Bender, J. Element Stewardship Abstract for Platanthera leucophaea and Platanthera praeclara. Minneapolis, MN: The Nature Conservancy.

Bowles, M.; Jacobs, K.; Zettler, L.; Delaney, T. Not dated. Germination of the federal threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid. Report for something by someone.

Bowles, M.L.; Bell, T. 1999. Establishing recovery targets for the eastern prairie fringed orchid (P. leucophaea); Unpublished report to the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. Lisle, IL: The Morton Arboretum. p.26.

Bowles, M.L.; Bell, T. 1999. Recovery strategies and delisting criteria for Platanthera leucophaea, Asclepias meadii, Lespedeza leptostachya, Dalea foliosa, and Cirsium pitcheri. Springfield, IL: Report to the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.

Bowles, M.L.; Jacobs, K.; Zettler, L.; Delaney, T. 2000. Seed viability and germiation of the federal threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid. Report to USFWS, ILDNR, IL Nature Preserves Commission & IL Endangered Species Protection Board.

Bowles, M.L.; Kurz, D.R. 1981. Unpublished report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Illinois status of Platanthera leucophaea. Rockford, IL: Natural Land Institute.

Brownell, V.R. 1984. Status report on the prairie white-fringed orchid Platanthera leucophaea: a rare species in Canada. Unpublished report to the Canadian government.

Case, F.W.; Case, R.B. 1990. Habitat survey, population census, and management suggestions for the endangered white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) in Michigan. Unpublished report to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Chapman, K.A. 1981. Unpublished report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the status of Habenaria leucophaea (Nutt.) A. Gray prairie white-fringed orchid in Michigan. Kalamazoo, MI: Biology Department, Western Michigan University.

Crosson, A.; Dunford, J.C.; Young, D.K. 1999. Pollination and other insect interaction of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea (Nuttall) Lindley) in Wisconsin. Chicago, IL: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Havens, K. 1999. A population genetic analysis of Platanthera leucophaea in northeastern Illinois. Final report to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Keibler, J. 1994. Restoration of the eastaern prairie fringed orchid Platanthera leucophaea by seed broadcast and management initiates. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Keibler, J. 1995. Restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid Platanthera leucophaea by seed broadcast and management initiates. Report to The Nature Conservancy.

Keibler, J. 1998. Population and monitoring assessment results of Restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) by seed broadcast and management initiatives, a continuation of the study, "Restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid Platanthera leucophaea by seed broadcast and management initiatives. Report to The Nature Conservancy.

Keibler, J. 2000. Population assessment and monitoring results of restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid by seed broadcast and management initiatives, a continuation of the study, "restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid by seed broadcast & management initiatives". Prepared for The Nature Conservancy.

Packard, S. 1991. Restoration of the eastern prairie fringed orchid Platanthera leucophaea by seed broadcast and management initiates. Chicago, Illinois: Report to The Nature Conservancy.

Penskar, M.R.; Higman, P.J. 2000. Special plant abstract for Platanthera leucophaea (eastern prairie fringed-orchid). Lansing, MI: Michigan Natural Features Inventory. p.3.

Pleasants, J.M.; Klier, K. 1995. Genetic Variation Within and Among Populations of the eastern and western prairie fringed orchids, Platanthera leucophaea & P. praeclara. Report to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. p.28.

USFWS. 1999. Recovery plan for the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid Platanthera leucophaea (Nuttall) Lindley. Fort Snelling, MN: Region 3 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. p.62.

Vitt, P. 2000. Effects of Hand Pollination on Reproduction and Survival of the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid: 2000 Field Season. Report to The Nature Conservancy. p.6.

Vitt, P.; Ross, L. 1999?. The Effects of Hand-Pollination on Subsequent Growth, Survival and Reproduction in Platanthera leucophaea: Year One of a Three-Year Project. Chicago Wilderness???.

Watson, William C. 1993. Inventory of northern Iowa for Platanthera leucophaea (Nuttall) Lindley and Platanthera praeclara sheviak and Bowles: final report, 1992. Des Moines, Iowa: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.


Bowles, M.L. 1985. Distribution and reproductive success of the prairie fringed orchid in southeastern Wisconsin sand prairie. [M.S. Thesis]: The University of Illinois. Urbana-Champaign, IL.

Cuthrell, David Lee. 1994. Insects associated with the prairie fringed orchids, Platanthera praeclara Sheviak & Bowles and P. leucophaea (Nuttall) Lindley. [M.S. Thesis]: North Dakota State University. 76p.

  This profile was updated on 3/4/2010
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