SAVING THE WHITE FRINGELESS ORCHID

The white fringeless orchid, also known as the monkey-face orchid, is a beautiful, 2-foot-tall plant with a single light-green stem. This elusive perennial’s elegant white flowers gather in a loose cluster at the end of the stem, blooming from late July through September. The plant is pollinated by butterflies like eastern tiger swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails and silver-spotted skippers, whose long tongues are adapted to probe the plant’s long, nectar-containing “spur.” It grows exclusively in forested areas with wet soil, engaged in an interdependent relationship with a specific fungus to attain nutrients.

Now eradicated from North Carolina, the white fringeless orchid remains only in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. Its populations are most threatened by habitat-altering human activities like road construction, residential and commercial development, wetland draining, logging, the conversion of native hardwood forests to pine plantations, and mowing and spraying right-of-ways with herbicides. Drought, invasive plants and feral hogs pose threats as well, and these dangers, coupled with the species’ small population sizes and low reproductive rates, leave it at high risk of extinction throughout its range.

The white fringeless orchid was first identified as needing federal protection in 1975. In 1999 it was made a “candidate” for safeguards, and relegated to a long waiting list (along with hundreds of other species) for protection. In 2004 the Center petitioned to push for real protection for the orchid, and finally, in 2015 — thanks to a landmark agreement between the Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the plant was proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Its long-awaited protection will also benefit many other imperiled species that share its swampy habitats and all play integral roles in the natural heritage of the American Southeast.