Door to Nature: Fringe Benefits

The term “fringe benefits” means a bonus to your wages or salary. There are three wildflower species in the Baileys Harbor area that have this bonus to their beauty – and perhaps to their utility in attracting pollinators.

One that blooms in May in The Ridges Sanctuary and Toft Point State Natural Area is the fringed polygala, also known as gaywings. My late husband, Roy, told me that when he first began managing The Ridges back in the mid-1960s, a local woman asked him whether the “boys and girls” were in bloom yet. He asked, “Which flower do you mean?” It was the gaywings she spoke of.

Just as in my study of mycology (wild mushrooms), common names can be different to many people in different areas of the country, whereas Latin names, or scientific names, are generally universal throughout the world. Recent DNA studies in the biological realm, however, are changing even this ideal.

Gaywings have a lovely magenta color, and the novice wildflower observer may think they’re orchids because they’re low-growing plants that are often found right next to the dwarf lake iris and usually bloom at the same time as the iris. 

This small, beautiful plant is in the milkwort family, Polygalaceae. Its full scientific name is Polygala paucifolia, and the species name means “few leaved.” Other common names for gaywings are flowering wintergreen and bird-on-the-wing.

Later in the summer, you may find a purple flower in some damp roadside woods that has a stalk of many individual blossoms with delicate fringes. That is the lesser purple fringed orchid. Old field guides listed it in the genus Habenaria (ha-ben-AIR-ee-a), but new studies have moved it into the genus Platanthera (play-TAN-ther-a).

The scientific name, Platanthera psycodes, translates to “flat-anthered butterfly flower.” (The name of the Greek mythological figure Psyche meant “butterfly.”) These plants prefer partially shaded, damp, wooded areas and can grow up to three feet tall. The lower lip is heavily fringed. It blooms from late July through most of August.

Lesser purple fringed orchids are fertilized by moths with a proboscis that’s lengthy enough to reach the nectar in the long spur at the back of the flower. Mycorrhizal fungi in the soil are needed to help these orchids grow and bloom; thus, they should never be transplanted, or they will die.

I photographed these orchids along Ridges Road a few years ago. Some plants had pale purple flowers, and others were a deeper violet color. The Platanthera genus has 150 species of orchids worldwide, and there are 17 other genera of orchids in Wisconsin. 

The Orchid family includes about 28,000 species in 763 genera around the world. They make up nearly 10% of all seed plants. Ours in Wisconsin are ground plants, but many in the tropics are epiphytes, also called “air plants.” They grow on trees but get their nourishment from the air and not from the tree.

The third wildflower in our area in this category is the fringed gentian, which blooms along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the late summer and through much of the autumn, and it opens only on sunny days. There are two species. 

The lesser fringed, Gentianopsis procera, has been documented in Door County, Brown County and about 17 counties in southeastern Wisconsin. It is listed as being of “special concern.” That apparently means this species is rather limited in its normal habitat and range, but it is not threatened or endangered.

The other species – the fringed gentian, G. crinita, meaning “with long hairs” – is found throughout the state in more than half the counties. It has longer fringes on the petals, whereas the lesser fringed gentian – our species here in Door County – has shorter fringes on its petals. Both are tall plants. That’s what the species procera means.

There are six genera in the Gentianaceae family in our state, and one that may be familiar to many is the closed or bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, named for the English botanical artist Henry C. Andrews. Its flowers have five petals that wrap around each other to form an elongated “container” or “bottle.” It’s fun to watch a bumblebee or other large insect force its way into the closed structure to reach the pollen inside.

Now that spring has finally arrived, get out to your favorite wildlife preserve to listen to the returning birds and look for the blooming flowers that brighten the landscape.