By Ethan Hatchett
Orchids are some of the most desired plants in the world. Their unique flowers conjure up images of rainforests and jungles. But these spectacular plants are sometimes found where you least expect them.
Chapman’s fringed orchid is one of these rare wildflowers and rare finds.
The species (Platanthera chapmanii) is found in pine flatwood wetlands and wet grasslands. Yet in Georgia, the plant is known primarily from a handful of small populations along roadsides in three southeast Georgia counties. (The orchid was rediscovered in 2009 after being “lost” for almost 100 years.)
Encountering one of these blooming orchids in the wild is a special experience. Chapman’s fringed orchids produce tall flower stalks filled with delicate, bright orange flowers, each fringed with petals surrounding a central lip.
The orchid is pollinated by swallowtail butterflies, the only insects equipped to reach deep enough inside their flowers. Once pollinated, the flowers turn into capsules filled with dust-like seeds that are easily dispersed across the landscape.
But germination is where things can get tricky. For successful germination to occur, the seeds must touch bare mineral soil. Patches of bare ground are common in regularly burned landscapes, yet without prescribed fire, thick layers of grass thatch or competing vegetation can limit this kind of seed-to-soil contact. Adding to that requirement, this terrestrial orchid needs specific fungi in the soil to successfully germinate. Because of the relationship with fungi, the orchid is limited to a narrow range of conditions.
And in that realm, habitat conversion to pine plantations and farms, fire suppression, and ditching and draining wetlands have resulted in Chapman’s fringed orchid becoming imperiled in Georgia. These changes have pushed the species to the edges of its former range, where suitable habitat was once much more abundant. In places where the plant still occurs, fire suppression has limited the spread of the orchids. Without periodic fire, competing vegetation increases the amount of shade and, in return, the orchids flower less. The other vegetation can also make it difficult for orchid seeds to reach the bare ground they need to germinate.
Roadsides provide a refuge for remaining Chapman’s fringed orchids, with routine mowing helping simulate the open, sunny conditions of their natural environment. However, these populations are under constant threat from herbicides and removal.
DNR has partnered with Camden County, private landowners and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens to safeguard the plant. Camden County’s Public Works Department has provided signage to identify important roadside management areas for the orchids. The areas are excluded from standard roadside management protocols, which can include herbicide applications and mowing schedules that would not allow for the orchids to flower and set seed.
Instead, staff and volunteers from DNR and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens help manage competing vegetation at these sites. DNR is also working with Forest Investment Associates to help identify and protect the orchids on the firm’s properties. Forest Investment Associates, or FIA, provides investment management services focused on sustainable forests for timberland investors.
FIA has supported surveys and conservation on a large tract in Camden, and in 2021 a “new” population of Chapman’s fringed orchids was discovered on an interior part of that site. The company is committed to protecting and growing this population. Targeted mowing, timber thinning and prescribed fire should help these Chapman’s orchid populations expand and flourish.
FIA regional investment forester Chad Lincoln called the firm’s collaboration with DNR “a great example of how we as forestry asset managers can support regional and local conservation planning, seeking to ensure the forests we manage contribute to the broader conservation needs of the landscapes.”
“The practices that support identification and conservation of rare and threatened species like Chapman’s fringed orchid are important to our environmental commitments as part of long-term forest stewardship,” Lincoln said.
Chapman’s fringed orchid is one of the wonders of Georgia wetlands. The orchid’s habitat and the conservation efforts that habitat requires are not unlike the plant’s flower: complex yet delicate. The bright orange blooms serve as a fitting symbol for the diverse wildlife that share the plant’s ecosystem.
Orchid ID Issues
In the field, it takes an expert to tell Chapman’s fringed orchid from lookalikes.
Chapman’s is thought to be the product of a natural crossing between yellow fringed orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) – also rare in Georgia – and the orange crested fringed orchid (Platanthera cristata). Chapman’s fringed orchid closely resembles both likely ancestors and can occasionally be found in the same habitat.
As was done this year, during monitoring and surveys in August – the species’ peak month for flowering – DNR biologists and partners mark individual Chapman’s fringed orchids to avoid confusion and help estimate the size of populations.
Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.