February 7, 2017


By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

While my college classmates were participating in our graduation ceremony last year, I was peeling a clementine by the Sheyenne River, lunching as I scouted wildflowers.
I’ve never been one for ceremonies, particularly ones where you don’t actually get your diploma, but rather a case to keep it in. The real deal came six weeks later.
Spring had sprung in North Dakota, with colors pouring out of leaves, grass and petals like a kaleidoscope at a nature preserve along the Sheyenne River with rare ferns and mirror pools.
Flowers are a love of mine. As Sherlock Holmes posited, “What a lovely thing a rose is.”
“Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Well said, Mr. Holmes.
One particular flower sent me on a trek into the Sheyenne National Grassland a year ago after waiting months for it to bloom.
Platanthera praeclara, or the western prairie fringed orchid, is the only plant on North Dakota’s endangered species list, existing in the state’s southeastern corner where the orchid’s largest state population of roughly 2,000 individuals is found.
Federally listed as threatened, the orchid’s loss of habitat has largely contributed to its decline, but if you know where to look and you don’t mind a hot July sun, you’re in for a treat.
Armed with their general whereabouts, I ventured forth to the flowers, dragging along two friends who weren’t too keen about the rainstorm swooping in.
But seeing a rare species in its own environment is a special moment.
The orchid can grow over 3 feet tall with feathery flowers of a creamy white color.
Picking one is a $2,000 fine, so don’t take any home for your dining table centerpiece.
(Note to law enforcement: I did not disturb the western prairie fringed orchid. Just a friendly photographer here.)
I snapped a few hundred photos of the orchids on two trips to see them, wet from rain on the first drive and sunburnt as red as a stop sign during the second.
The treeless grassland exposes you somewhat.
But it’s worth it.
I imagine my great-grandmother felt the same as she logged whooping cranes in her bird book on a trip to Texas years ago.
One tends to think of endangered and rare species to be in exotic places like that giant bird in Venezuela from “Up.”
Or an isolated, tropical island.
Or a cavernous pool full of rare guppies.
(That last one actually exists.)
A patch of grass in North Dakota doesn’t seem like a home for a dwindling species, but we can take a leaf out of Dolly Parton’s songbook for insight here.
“When a flower grows wild, it can always survive / Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”
And that’s true. River bottoms, bald grasslands, even the roadway of I-29 are home to some beautilious flowers.
Beardtongue. White violets. Blazing star. Coneflower. All pretty.
Just mind the endangered species.