Environment

A rare orchid hasn’t been seen in Vermont since 1902 — until now

The threatened small whorled pogonia was considered extinct until two scientists rediscovered it with help from an app.

Small whorled pogonia orchid

Community scientists recently rediscovered a rare orchid that hadn’t been spotted in Vermont in 120 years and was believed to be extinct in the state.

Botanists with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department said two local scientists alerted them to a population of small whorled pogonia, which was considered extinct in Vermont since 1902 and listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The botanists stumbled upon the rare orchid while exploring a community science app called iNaturalist. The app functions as a global database that tracks biodiversity, with users sharing their observations with fellow naturalists.

The app helped the scientists, John Gange of Shelburne and Tom Doubleday of Colchester, locate the orchid on Winooski Valley Park District conservation land in Chittenden County. 

Advertisement:

“Discovering a viable population of a federally threatened species unknown in our state for over a century is astounding,” Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department Botanist Bob Popp said in a press release.  “It’s Vermont’s equivalent of rediscovering the ivory-billed woodpecker.”

Considered a globally rare orchid, the small whorled pogonia is typically found across the eastern United States and Ontario, Canada. Populations of the orchid have been located in Maine and New Hampshire, growing in areas of partial sun, such as forest edges. Botanists have scoured Vermont in previous searches but until recently had no luck spotting the plant. 

“A challenge of locating rare orchid populations for conservation is that so much of where they grow is determined by things we can’t easily see or measure, like networks of fungi in the soil,” said Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department Assistant Botanist Aaron Marcus. “These kinds of discoveries are only possible because of the vibrant communities of enthusiasts and professional botanists who work together to understand and document Vermont’s plant diversity.”

According to Marcus, Gange noticed that Doubleday had used iNaturalist to ask for help identifying an unfamiliar wildflower last July. He then reached out to the department with a tip showing that the small whorled pogonia had likely been rediscovered.

Advertisement:

Popp, Marcus, Doubleday, and Gange returned to the site as a team this spring and found the orchid in bloom.  

Protecting the small whorled pogonia

The next step for the botanists is to help the rare flower flourish in its natural Vermont habitat. The department will work with the Winooski Valley Park District to look for the small whorled pogonia on nearby conservation land and monitor the population.

According to the scientists, rare orchids such as the small whorled pogonia are at elevated risk from illegal collection. There’s also a high risk of hikers and tourists accidentally trampling the flower. Doubleday removed the orchid’s public coordinates from iNaturalist in the hope of protecting it.

“We’re incredibly fortunate that this small whorled pogonia population is on land protected by the Winooski Valley Park District,” said Popp. “It speaks to the importance of habitat conservation.  When we conserve a piece of land, we rarely know all the species that are there, but we do know that conserving intact natural communities yields the best odds for supporting Vermont’s biodiversity, from common species to rare ones.”

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com