It goes without saying that I’m a wanderer of wild lands, though I’m often asked why. Wild lands are the frontiers for garden plants, whether in Iowa or the Ozarks. Frontiers are full of wonder, bewilderment, and the ripe occasion of failure. Not everything found will suit American gardens. Nobody will find everything they’re looking for either. But the pursuit itself is a worthwhile occupation of time. This afternoon I stole away for a few hours to find my way through a very familiar prairie–one I grew up on.
This prairie holds special meaning to me. It’s the first virgin tallgrass prairie that I ever set foot on and it’s where I learned one plant at a time how to botanize, to watch and listen for the cues plants dropped. Botanizing, as aloof an activity as it may seem, really just taps into any individual’s native tendency to observe, organize, and categorize. And I can’t believe that anyone gardens without observing. That’s partly the point after all, right? The first daylily. The last tomato. This innate phenology joyfully haunts our spirits and minds.
While this prairie holds great memories for me personally, it also holds a population of the federally threatened western prairie fringed orchid. A superbly beautiful plant, it’s garden suitability ranks nil. It requires exacting conditions, symbiotic associations with mychorrizal fungi, and has an inconceivable relationship with its immediate environment that results in an abberant, Circadian rhythm of sorts throughout its lifetime. Digging them from the wild will get you sent to the farthest depths of hell, not just for removing it illegally from the wild but for ultimately failing miserably at cultivating it. Warnings aside, the intricate beauty of this plant captured me when I first saw it. Here’s an image of one I found today in peak bloom.