The volunteers who monitor the Ute ladies’-tresses population at BRLC’s Mendon Meadow Preserve were greeted with an abundance of flowering orchids this year. The final count of 1,424 flowering individuals was the second highest since monitoring began a decade ago – a tremendously promising outcome for these lovely but rare plants.
Mendon Meadow is a 30-acre parcel on the west side of Cache Valley, acquired by the Conservancy in 2013 to protect a healthy population of Ute ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes diluvialis). Springtime snowmelt, a high water table, and summer irrigation have helped over the years to support the orchids, which prefer wet environments (but not too wet). Each summer between Pioneer Day and Labor Day, BRLC volunteers meet weekly to systematically walk through an 16-acre portion of the property, marking the location of each flowering orchid so that their GPS coordinates can be recorded and entered into a map database that charts the annual fluctuations in the population.
Flower production was down significantly during the drought years of 2021 and 2022, when fewer than 100 plants were able to produce flowers, but we were hopeful that the population would rebound at some point. This species is unusual in that it can enter a dormant stage, lurking right beneath the soil surface as little more than a root system, until conditions are right for flowering. The wet winter and spring of 2023 surely helped make this season a great one. We’ve also noticed that the best flowering seasons at Mendon Meadow have come every three years, possibly because at our site the ladies’-tresses must spend a couple of years as orchids-in-waiting before they’re ready to flower and spread their tiny seeds for the next generation.
For decades, Spiranthes diluvialis has been listed as a Threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In June, USFWS released a “species status assessment” that led the agency to propose removing the species from the Threatened list. The assessment concluded that Ute ladies’-tresses is doing well because it can survive in an extended state of dormancy and can exist in a variety of habitats include places with human-managed water systems such as at Mendon Meadow. In fact, we’ve been told that one reason why USFWS felt confident enough to consider potentially de-listing the species is because they know there are populations that are well-protected and closely monitored by Bear River Land Conservancy and organizations like it.
Volunteers are a key to our successful orchid monitoring effort. This year, 16 volunteers donated nearly 100 hours to counting and recording Ute ladies’-tresses. Watch our social media for announcements next July as we will once again recruit nature-loving individuals to join us at Mendon Meadow.
Mark Brunson, BRLC Board Emeritus