Field of Science

Keeping track of little things

Some time about 15 years ago while doing something down on hands and knees out in our research prairie plot, a small number of green twayblade orchids were discovered. Besides being green, these orchids are only about 12-15 cm tall on a good day. So a species was added to the list of plants present bringing the total number of orchid species to three. Last week the current park director asked if the priaire still had 3 species of orchids, and while the other two are quite apparent and reasonable common, the green twayblade hadn't been seen in 12 years. And then just three days later while doing a species census on our plots, much to our surprise because this was an addition, and much to our even greater surprise because this was in prairie vegetation that is already over a meter tall, was a green twayblade orchid. Failure to observe this orchid for over a decade was not because no one was around, but simply because it's such a small and inconspicuous plant. This shows how hard it is to document diversity, and this would be a county record too, but the Phactor isn't going to kill an orchid to put a dot on a map. Yet no type of comprehensive floristic study has been done in this area for more than 100 years, so parks and nature areas don't know it they are gaining or losing species because no inventory, no point of reference exists. Some records, herbarium specimens, do show the loss of some plants, Indian paintbrush and yellow lady slipper orchids, for example. But 100 years ago no one was thinking about the long-term; most of the collecting was done to teach and learn taxonomy. Now in fantastic hind-sight the value of such collections is obvious. Unfortunately, now no one wants to fund such an effort so that in another 100 years someone isn't saying the same thing about us.

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