Two hundred thousand acres is a lot of land. That is the acreage the Ohio Division of Wildlife owns or manages, spread between about 120 different holdings statewide. Wildlife areas can be found from the Lake Erie Islands to the Ohio River; in the rugged hill country of eastern Ohio and the flatlands of the west.
These diverse properties collectively harbor an incredible array of plants.
There are nearly 1,900 species of native plants in Ohio, and state wildlife areas provide homes for most of them. Some plants, such as red maple, spring-beauty or Virginia creeper, are widespread and abundant. Others are far rarer, and it is these botanical gems that inflame the passions of avid flora-questers.
Orchids pique the interest of nearly everyone, botanist or not. Many people probably aren't aware representatives of this exotic family grow wild in the Buckeye state. But 46 species can be found, although some know-how is usually required to find them. Most are rare: 59 percent of our orchid species are listed as endangered or some other level of imperilment by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Our 46 species are but a smidgen of the massive orchid family, which may be the largest tribe of flowering plants on earth. About 25,000 species are known, with peak abundance in the tropics. All of the Ohio species are exotic in their own right, but the lady's-slipper orchids are particularly stunning.
Especially noteworthy among the lady's-slippers is the white lady's-slipper, Cypripedium candidum.
This Ohio endangered species occurs in only two locales, at opposite ends of the state. A population near the Ohio River in Adams County is tiny - a dozen or so plants. The other site is comparatively huge, and is found in Resthaven Wildlife Area in Erie County near Lake Erie. Resthaven protects the best surviving tract of the formerly vast Castalia Prairie, and the wildlife area harbors numerous rare animals and plants.
Here in mid-May, the spectacle of thousands of white lady's-slippers blooming on the prairie is hard to top.
Division of Wildlife staff periodically burn parts of Resthaven to promote biodiversity. Some species of prairie plants are fire-dependent and require regular burnings to prosper; the orchid is one of them. In a spring following a fire, the white lady's-slippers burst forth in mind-boggling profusion.
The pouch-like flower of a white lady's-slipper is a botanical objet d'art; it resembles an elfin shoe made of lacquered ceramic. Small bees are the primary pollinators, and the flower's structure forces them to navigate the blossom in such a way pollen is spread on their densely hairy abdomen and thorax.
The pollen-dusted bees - also an important part of the prairie's ecology - then fly to the next orchid and provide cross-pollination services.
As always with wild plants, and orchids especially, look but don't dig.
White lady's-slippers are so showy gardeners sometimes lust for them, but the finicky orchids are nearly impossible to transplant. They require specialized soil fungus that forms an alliance with the plants' roots. Placing lady's-slippers in unnatural haunts dooms them.
Besides, it's illegal to harvest plants from state lands without a permit.
White lady's-slippers are a fascinating component of Ohio's prairie heritage. More than 99 percent of the state's original prairies have been lost, thus protection of places such as Resthaven Wildlife Area is vital to the conservation of these rich habitats.
Jim McCormac is a naturalist with Ohio Division of Wildlife.