Platanthera psycodes in situ at Bluestem Farm
Chapters of the story of Bluestem Farm
Orchids found native on the farm and description of land. (this webpage)
Visiting Bluestem's Lab
Visiting Bluestem's Nursery
Cypripedium reginae out planting
First conservation project
Platanhera leucophaea, the white fringed prairie orchid, conservation
Photo gallery of orchids found in South Central Wisconsin
When I bought our 80-acre farm (now 118 acre) eight years ago, orchids were not on my mind. I wanted woods to provide enough oak to warm our house during the winter and tillable land to start a nativeplant-seed nursery. I thought orchids were plants of unspoiled wilderness, not of old farms with overgrazed pasture, prickly ash and corn stubble.
While our home is ordinary for a small Wisconsin farm, the surrounding landscape is not. The farm lies in the heart of the Baraboo Hills, an area known for its unique geology and plant communities. The hills are formed by two ranges of quartzite that stood as islands in the Cambrian Sea. Because most of the quartzite is close to the surface, much of the land has never been plowed, making the hills home to the largest block of undeveloped hardwood forest in the upper Midwest. The ravines or "hollows" have microclimates where species uncommon this far south find refuge. North-facing slopes shaded by hemlock may still harbor waterfalls of ice in May. Both Cypripedium acaule and Cypripedium pubescens grow here, depending on the soil pH. Cypripedium pubescens is more common and favors sites where sandstone cemented with lime overlies the quartzite. More than 6,000 acres are protected in the hills as state parks, state natural areas, or by private conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy. While I expected to find orchids in these pristine areas, I never anticipated the diversity of orchids right in our own back yard.
Our farm lies on a pocket of sandstone between outcroppings of quartzite. Cattle and sheep grazed part of the woodland and our main pasture until 1987. On south slopes, the dominant trees are white oak and hickory, while on north slopes sugar maple, red oak and basswood predominate. Judging by the diameter of their trunks and their large, spreading shape, some of the oaks are more than 150 years old and represent a remnant oak savanna. Not quite prairie and not forest, oak savanna once covered 7 million acres in Wisconsin. Only a small fraction remains in good condition. Most savannas have lost their open, park like character as invaders such as buckthorn, honeysuckle, and red cedar shade out and kill the diversity of herbs in the understory. The oaks also decline and fail to regenerate, since oaks are not shade tolerant. We have a mix of prairie and woodland herbaceous species, including Asclepius purpurascens, a savanna species endangered in Wisconsin. Fire and grazing by bison and elk once maintained our savannas. Now intensive management is required to restore them. My wife, Martha, and I have made restoration of our savannas our top priority, and we spend many hours cutting brush and reintroducing fire. We find the greatest number of orchids within our savanna remnants.
Prescribed burn of oak savanna
The photos of the orchids are native and were not introduced by us. Our farm has a wide range of habitats, including perennial and ephemeral creeks, wetlands, lowland forest, prairie, oak savanna, oak woods, maple woods, orchards, and old hayfields. Most of the agricultural fields that were in a corn/bean/alfalfa rotation are now in perennial crops: prairie seed production, apples, pears, and grapes. There are orchids found in all habitats. More recently disturbed grounds or old pasture have some of the “weedier” or short lived species, such as Spiranthes and Liparis, whereas the wetland contains many Platanthera psycodes, which often reappear in the same locations year after year, with some variation. 40 of our 118 acres are protected by a conservation easement, and we will probably enroll more acres when we are closer to retiring and know better how to manage some of our natural areas
Orchids Enter the Picture
The first orchid we discovered was Goodyera
pubescens, the most common
orchid in our area and easily recognized by its variegated foliage.
Soon after cutting brush, however, we noticed several more species,
including Galearis spectabilis, Spiranthes
cernua, Spiranthes casei, Liparis
liliifolia and Liparis loeselii.
Galearis spectabilis has increased dramatically since we first noticed them five years ago. Clones with three inflorescences now have a dozen or more. One has bloomed in full sun at the base of our pasture following an April burn, though they are most abundant in partial shade. Those in full shade do not bloom as often and have not increased in size. I have seen this species most often in degraded savanna remnants on mesic soils. Perhaps its continued presence is dependent on the maintenance of our savannas with fire and managed grazing.
While walking our pasture in midwinter, we noticed a seed capsule sticking up above the snow. When I opened the capsule, hundreds of tiny seeds rose into the air like a vapor. I knew we had found another orchid, but which one? The next summer we found many L. liliifolia blooming there and elsewhere. Last July we also found L. loeselii. Why is L. loeselii, the fen orchid, growing on a dry hillside with slopes of zero to 20 percent, sometimes in colonies of a dozen or more? The soil is a silt loam with sandstone bedrock close to the surface. They are most common where we cut down 20-year-old red cedars among scattered oaks. They withstand prescribed fire and prefer open shade. This past summer a researcher found L. loeselii growing under a clump of Sporobolus heterolepis, a short native bunch grass, in a prairie we planted in autumn 1980 on a sandy loam 10 miles to the north. Perhaps its small size of 4 to 5 inches makes it easy to overlook in this habitat.
The showiest orchid lies just 15 feet from our fence line in our neighbor's old field, which borders a beaver pond and creek. One day in August, I stumbled upon several Platanthera psycodes in bloom. We have a low spot in an adjacent field which, because of the high rainfall of recent summers, has become a wetland with bulrush and bottle gentians. I hope a few Platanthera seeds blow in and find a home there.
Scott Weber was born in Evanston, Illinois. He is a member of the Madison Orchid Growers Guild and lectures on native orchids and prairie restoration, and he also leads tours for the Nature Conservancy. • Bluestem Farm, S5920 Lehman Road, Baraboo, Wisconsin 53913.
You can visit Bluestem Farm by appointment. Telephone: (608) 356-0179
The aerial photo below was taken after the spring burns, and you can see the dark areas that were burned.