Federally threatened orchid rediscovered in Vermont, thanks to a smartphone app

  • In this undated photo provided by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Dept., a small whorled pogonia blooms on Winooski Valley Park District conservation land in Vermont. On June 8, 2022, botanists confirmed that a population of the orchids - believed to be extinct in Vermont since 1902 and listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act - has been found in Chittenden County. (John Gange/Vermont Fish and Wildlife via AP) John Gange

Published: 6/9/2022 9:42:42 PM
Modified: 6/9/2022 9:40:35 PM

The small whorled pogonia has been widely believed extinct in the state for over a century — that is, until a Vermonter stumbled upon a mysterious plant and posted it on an app.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s botanists confirmed the presence of nine small whorled pogonias on May 25 in the multi-town Winooski Valley Park District in Chittenden County. The species is rare globally and is now one of only three federally threatened or endangered plants with a confirmed presence in Vermont.

This species is the only one of the three that’s historical, meaning it went missing in Vermont for more than 25 years — or in this case, for 120.

“The last time this plant was seen in 1902 was actually a photograph of a plant in a flower pot,” said Aaron Marcus, assistant botanist for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “I haven’t been able to find any literature that really tells the full backstory of why the plant was in a flower pot.”

That 1902 sighting took place in a part of Chittenden County that has since become urbanized. Now, over a century later, the plant is confirmed to be back on Vermont’s landscapes, thanks to a retired greenhouse manager and birder and his use of a popular plant-identifying app.

Tom Doubleday had used iNaturalist, a community science app, to request assistance in identifying an unfamiliar wildflower in July 2021.

Eleanor Ray was the first person to identify the sighting as small whorled pogonia, and community botanist John Gange was the first to bring it to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s attention.

Gange often goes on iNaturalist to confirm and correct orchid species sightings, he said.

“When I first saw this listing without seeing the picture, I assumed it was misidentified,” Gange said. “When I clicked on the image, even though there was no flower, it was clearly Isotria medeoloides. I would say my jaw dropped to the floor. It was amazing.”

Gange, Doubleday and Marcus returned to the site this spring, alongside the department’s head botanist, Bob Popp, to confirm the orchid’s regional re-discovery while the plants were in bloom.

“Seeing them in Vermont, and seeing so many with two flowers, which is fairly unusual, was really a privilege,” Gange said. “I wish I could have stayed there a bit longer.”

Ray and Gange are both plant conservation volunteers through a nonprofit called Native Plant Trust, which is the country’s first plant conservation organization and the only one focused solely on New England’s native plants.

“That network is really valuable and important, and we would have a much poorer understanding of the status of how endangered plants are doing in the state if it weren’t for all of our volunteers, because we do not have the staff to be able to monitor these plants on our own,” Marcus said.

The small whorled pogonia is historically found across the eastern U.S. and Ontario. Unlike many flowers, it is self-pollinating, and unlike many orchids, it photosynthesizes independently of fungi. It is, however, likely to be reliant on fungi for other functions.

Little is known about the small whorled pogonia’s habitat needs, though it can be seen growing in Maine and New Hampshire in regions of partial sun, such as forest edges and openings.

“Orchids are some of our most charismatic plants in Vermont. They conjure up a lot of excitement and imagination, which is really wonderful. I think something that actually gets us excited about orchids is how mysterious they are,” Marcus said. “How little we understand about orchids is actually, I think, part of their intrigue.”

Still, the North American Orchid Conservation Center is working to culture all the fungi associated with orchid roots in different states and ecological regions of the continent to learn more about orchids’ growing needs.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has collaborated with the organization in the past on research for other Vermont-based orchid species.

Marcus isn’t the only botanist involved in the discovery to find orchids so mysteriously intriguing. Gange said his own particular interest in orchids is “a little bit mysterious” even to himself.

“There’s something about them that kind of enchanted me, really. It’s really hard to put your finger on what that quality is, and I think other people who are passionate about different subjects are probably familiar with this as well,” Gange said. “There’s just some kind of an attachment really, and just a need to learn more about it.”

Gange’s expertise in orchid botany is largely self-taught without a formal background, he said, though he used to work with an orchid researcher mentor, who has since passed away.

In addition to its many unique properties as a species, Vermont’s newly discovered small whorled pogonia population is one of the most northerly populations in its entire global range, Marcus said. This is especially significant in observing evolution through climate change.

Prior to the discovery of this population, there had been unsuccessful searches for the species in Vermont. Popp had made some efforts personally, as had Gange on a separate occasion.

Lauren Chicote, operations manager for the Winooski Valley Park District, said the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department informed her organization of the presence of the rare orchid about a week ago. The two organizations have collaborated on similar conservation projects in the past.

“It just sort of reiterates why we exist and why the Park District does what we do,” Chicote said. “It’s always just a really feel-good, exciting thing that really reminds us we’re doing really important work.”

Rare orchids are at high risk for illegal collection, accidental trampling and other disturbances. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is keeping the exact location of the known plants private for their protection.

“It’s always a balance, with managing our parks for recreation and public access but also for conservation,” Chicote said. “We will make sure that no trails will ever be nearby where this is, so that there’s not the accidental trampling of it and we will continue to follow the guidance of Fish & Wildlife to conceal the actual location.”

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies manages Vermont Atlas of Life, a Vermont-based project within iNaturalist which has coordinated for avid community scientists to share observations since 2013, often leading to plant rediscoveries similar to that of the small whorled pogonia.

“We have a lot of users now, and it’s really amazing; we’ve discovered all kinds of stuff,” said Kent McFarland, creator and director of Vermont Atlas of Life. “Not anything like this usually, but this is pretty crazy.”

Vermont Atlas of Life utilizes iNaturalist software for a mechanism that automatically obscures the location of endangered and sensitive plant species on iNaturalist, which could be at risk for trampling or poaching.

Doubleday also manually removed the coordinates from his iNaturalist post using the app’s privacy settings, just to be safe.

Marcus recommends that people recreate responsibly throughout the state, especially in delicate habitats. They advise Vermonters against picking slow-growing flower species, such as orchids or trilliums, which are sensitive and vulnerable to declines.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Don’t go pick dandelions,’ ” they said. “Vermont has such an incredible diversity of ecosystems of plants and all the creatures who live within them and it’s really incredible. I want to encourage people to go out — you never know what you might find.”

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