Photo by Gretchen Steele.

August 1, 2023

Spring Ladies’ Tresses: An Emblem of the Resilience of Nature

What road would you take if you were searching for a state endangered orchid? Panda Bear Road. Mountain Lion Road. Elk Road. Leopard Road. Armadillo Road. It may sound like the start of a joke or a myth, and yet these roads all lead to the largest state park in Illinois—Pyramid State Recreation Area. And within the boundaries of this former mining site grows a small floral wonder—the state endangered spring ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes vernalis).

What’s in a Name?

Two stems of spring ladies' tresses in the grass at Pyramid State Recreation Area in Illinois. The small white flowers have a fringed look and are aranged in a spiral around the stem.
State endangered spring ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes vernalis). Photo by Gretchen Steele.

This delicate flower goes by several names—spring ladies’ tresses, vernal ladies’ tresses and grass-leaved ladies’ tresses. The spring part of the common name is a bit of a misnomer, since this species does not start blooming in Illinois until late June, though it does flower in the spring in Florida and other southern portions of its range. But the ladies’ tresses portion of the name is on-point, as the spiral arrangement of the white flowers does resemble a lady’s long, braided hair. Although this is not the only orchid with that aesthetic. For example, the more common nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua) has a similar look, but its flowers are arranged in twin spirals.

Of the 50 species of orchids that grow wild in Illinois, 49 are native species, one is listed as state threatened, and 16 are listed as state endangered with two of those 16 also listed as federally threatened. While several of these orchids look similar, a few distinguishing characteristics of the spring ladies’ tresses include:

  • relatively long flowers (usually exceeding 6 mm)
  • pale yellow color of the interior of the lower lip of the flowers
  • single spiral of flowers rather than a double spiral
  • taller than the other ladies’ tresses
  • hairy stem
  • summer bloom instead of the fall bloom of other species in its genus

Resilience of Nature

A reclaimed mine site is probably not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of an endangered orchid. Yet a population of spring ladies’ tresses was discovered in Pyramid State Recreation Area in 2020. For those not familiar with the site, the site is named after the Pyramid Coal Company which began a surface mine operation at the site in 1926. The company went out of business in 1959. And in 1968, 924 acres were transferred from Southern Illinois University to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) (at the time the Illinois Department of Conservation). Additional lands were added and about 3,200 acres of mostly unreclaimed mine land became the Pyramid State Park. In 2001, an additional 16,245 acres of reclaimed mine land adjacent to the park were acquired by the IDNR and that land acquisition created what is now the largest IDNR-managed site in Illinois.

A photo of Pyramid State Recreation Area. Bare ground in front with a mix of tall grasses and sparse shrubs with a small grove of trees in the distance under a clear blue sky with a few wisps of white clouds.
Pyramid State Recreation Area. Photo by Stephen Tillman, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Pyramid is divided into five management units. The Captain Unit is the largest unit and is comprised of large grasslands and pastures which are dotted with crop fields, large lakes and small wetlands. A sizable seasonal waterfowl refuge has been established in the Captain Unit which provides habitat for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. The Park Unit consists of heavily forested hills interspersed with lakes and ponds. All of the strip-mined area in this unit has been replanted to hardwoods and pines and small fields have been planted to food plots. The Denmark Unit is covered by grasslands and crop fields, large lakes, small wetlands, and a seasonal waterfowl refuge. The Galum Unit contains large grasslands, eight crop fields, four lakes, small wetlands, and a forest corridor along Galum Creek. And the East Conant Unit is an unmined property that is managed as large crop fields interspersed with fencerows and two large blocks of forest.

 A photo of Pyramid State Recreation Area. In the foreground are tall, green grasses interspersed with fire-killed shrubs and in the distance a small waterbody. A summer time image under clear blue skies.
A formerly mined site, Pyramid provides habitat for a host of species and abundant recreational activities. Photo by Stephen Tillman.

Collectively, the units provide an abundance of hunting, trapping, and fishing opportunities as well as boating, camping, equestrian trails, hiking trails, mountain bike trails, and an archery range.

The park is also home to one of the largest populations of spring ladies’ tresses in the state. The appearance of this intricately coiffed orchid at Pyramid State Park is proof that nature is incredibly resilient and with proper management even the most abused landscapes can recover.

Every Orchid Counts

When dealing with an endangered species the survival and reproduction of each individual becomes critical to the long-term survival of the species. So how does the IDNR manage the site to foster the survival of this rare flower? At Pyramid State Park one part of the answer is prescribed fire. Spring ladies’ tresses have very small seeds that are dispersed by the wind. They show up in prairies and grasslands, but often in unexpected places, and the typically small populations fluctuate in location from year to year. In places with prescribed fire, biologists are seeing more flowering stems. The fires also help to control autumn olive, one of several invasive species that biologists are battling at the park. Cutting shrubs and control of invasive grasses like phragmites are additional management strategies currently taking place at Pyramid. And research also plays an important role in management.

One of the joys of nature is the endless opportunity to be surprised. So hit the road and explore Pyramid State Park for yourself. You never know what small delights are to be found when you go outside. And remember, if you find a rare orchid, take only photos. Every orchid counts.

Laura Kammin is a Natural Resources Specialist with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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