Back to the Prairie Platanthera

We really lucked out this past June when Casey and I took a trip to the northwest of Missouri in search of the two state-endangered prairie-fringed orchids. We were not sure if we would find Platanthera leucophaea (eastern prairie-fringed orchid) at all and chances were iffy to find both species flowering simultaneously. During some years, there may be gaps in the phenology of flowering of these two species in the state, which would require at least a couple of these long trips. As mentioned above, we not only found both species in our search but found them both at near-peak bloom.

First up is Platanthera praeclara (western prairie-fringed orchid) that we found in a reliable spot in Harrison County.

The state-endangered and federally-threatened Platanthera praeclara was photographed with a backdrop of tallgrass prairie in Harrison County, MO
Naturally pollinated by nocturnal sphinx moths, some state programs are now hand-pollinating prairie-fringed orchids in efforts to increase populations and reintroduce the plants to new areas.

We were thrilled to find a population of approximately 40 Platanthera leucophaea (eastern prairie-fringed orchid) plants at a Grundy County location.

A pair of Platanthera leucophaea stand tall in a wet prairie in Grundy Co, MO.
The long nectar spurs require an insect with a long proboscis to act as pollinator of Platanthera leucophaea.
A pair of grasshopper nymphs feeding on Platanthera leucophaea. This was the only plant we observed with heavy arthropod feeding pressure like this.

Blanchard Springs

Casey introduced me to this location early in the spring. This is Blanchard Springs in Stone County, Arkansas. With an average daily flow rate of ~10 millon gallons per day, it doesn’t fall near the top ten of the fantastic and popular springs found in southern Missouri. However, this amount of water finding its way through a limestone rock face and plunging ten feet or more makes this a spectacular spring indeed!

Blanchard springs is a fun and easy spring to visit in north-central Arkansas.

Mississippi Kites in the Arkansas

It is always nice finding your targets on a big photography trip but the icing on the cake is finding the unexpected. That is what happened here when Casey and spent some time at Moro Bay State Park in southern Arkansas. When speaking to a very friendly park ranger, he let us on to where a pair of these birds setup territory and were virtually oblivious to humans. These birds completely ignored us as they flew to and from their favorite perches, often flying mere feet over our heads. We watched the male handoff their insect prey a number of times and even witnessed a copulation, but those photos were ruined by branches.

Hottonia inflata (American Featherfoil)

Many thanks to Stephen, Pete and Casey for introducing me to this special plant this spring. Hottonia inflata, or American featherfoil, is ranked as imperiled (S2) in the state of Missouri and is a species of conservation concern in most states within its range. The destruction of wetlands habitats in the U.S. is the cause of the scarcity of this winter annual member of the primrose family (Primulaceae). The stems of this plant are spongy organs filled with air pockets and are the characteristic described in the specific name – inflata.

The gas-filled stems and leaves of Hottonia inflata allow this aquatic member of the primrose family to keep its flowers above the water’s surface.

The Beardtongues?

Here is a genus that I find interesting. The Penstemon is made up of approximately 270 species and is the largest genus of flowering plants that are endemic to North America. Now classified in the plantain family (Plantaginaceae), this is a very diverse genus found across a variety of habitats and altitudes. Most species should be readily identified as a Penstemon due to their unique flower morphology. The corolla is a fused tube, comprised of five petals that can be identified as lobes in a two on top, three on the bottom configuration. Inside the corolla you will find two pairs of stamens with anthers pushed towards the top of the open mouth. In between the fertile stamens is a staminode that lies towards the bottom of the tube. This sterile modified stamen usually ends in a brush-like structure. This is the eponymous “beardtongue”. The generic name, Penstemon, meaning “stamen-like”, also refers to this staminode.

I got to meet four species of Penstemon in bloom this year – two of which I planted in the garden. I was happy to see them bloom in their first season.

Penstemon pallidus (pale penstemon) from my front garden in St. Louis Co., MO.
A closeup of Penstemon pallidus flowers. Note the yellow beard (staminode) that is thought to aid in pollination by pushing hymenopteran pollinators towards the stigma and anthers located at the top of the corolla tube. Also note the dark nectar guides that point towards the back of the tube.
Penstemon digitalis (foxglove beardtongue) is the most common and least particular member of the genus in eastern Missouri. These plants were found in a field at Beckemeier Conservation Area in St. Louis County.
The flowers of Penstemon digitalis are mostly white in color and have a relatively long blooming period compared to other local members of the genus.
Penstemon tubaeflorus is a showy white penstemon that is found primarily in the southwestern quadrant in Missouri. These photos were taken at Tingler Prairie Natural Area near West Plains, MO.
Here you can see why this species gets its common name of ‘trumpet beardtongue.’
The large and showy flowers of Penstemon cobaea (prairie beardtongue). These were photographed from the author’s front garden in St. Louis Co., MO.
I used focus stacking to capture the details in the flower of this Penstemon cobaea (prairie beardtongue). Note the two pairs of stamens that wrap around the inside of the corolla and present their pollen-filled anthers at the top. The stiff brush-like beard of the staminode pushes would-be pollinators towards these reproductive organs.

-OZB