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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Searching for the Rare White Fringeless Orchid

The highlight of many a wildflower excursion arrives when participants find one of the fifty orchids native to Tennessee. Through the Rare Plant Protection and Conservation Act administered by TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas, a number of orchids are state-listed, including the state-endangered White Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera integrilabia).

Thanks to multiple funding projects from the Endangered Species Act Section 6 program from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TDEC botanists have since 1996 attempted to relocate every known occurrence in Tennessee and monitor those which are extant, discovering in the process a few new populations of this elusive species. Regrettably, these monitoring data revealed many declining, degraded, or destroyed sites. Based on these results, and the species’ range-wide rarity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened in 2016.

As White Fringeless Orchid cannot be accurately identified from other species within the Platanthera genus without flowering individuals, botanists time their surveys with the species’ August flowering period. This short flowering period demands botanists monitor as many sites as possible within a few weeks. As such, TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas (DNA) greatly benefitted from the assistance of Tennessee State Park rangers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, and volunteers during the latest round of monitoring.

The majority of this orchid’s range spans Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and includes wet, acidic, stream heads, with an overstory of red maple and black gum. Co-occurring species include sphagnum moss; a variety of flowering plants such as cardinal flower and cowbane; and an abundance of ferns, especially New York, cinnamon, and royal.

Not all sites require undisturbed forest, as some of the largest populations occur within maintained open areas such as power lines. Furthermore, botanists have observed increased flowering within populations as a result of natural forest canopy gaps caused by ice or wind storms.

White Fringeless Orchid populations that occur in more open, early successional habitat often require ecological management including canopy thinning or reducing woody sapling competition. Without proper management, open boggy areas easily become overgrown with saplings and shrubs and the number of flowering White Fringeless Orchid plants rapidly declines. So long as each site’s hydrology is not altered, such open habitats aid the species’ long-term survival.

Scientist hope to use TDEC’s multi-year monitoring data to better understand the appropriate light and hydrologic needs of White Fringeless Orchid, as these data help guide land-management decisions. TDEC has already implemented management activities on state parks and natural areas with plans for further management. In addition, DNA botanists, Tennessee State Park rangers, and others continue to search for yet unknown populations on both public and private lands. TDEC is committed to identifying new populations of this rare orchid in need of protection as well as ensuring populations in our parks and natural areas are properly managed.

Download a fact sheet about this rare plant monitoring project to see photos of the Fringeless Orchid.

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