Lesser Whorled Pogonia has been widely believed to be extinct in the state for over a century, that is, until a Vermonter stumbled across a mysterious plant and posted it on an app.
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department botanists confirmed the presence of nine small whorled pogonias on May 25 in the multi-town district of Winooski Valley Park in Chittenden County. The species is globally rare and is now one of only three federally threatened or endangered plants confirmed to occur in Vermont.
This species is the only one of the three that is historical, meaning it has been extinct in Vermont for over 25 years – or in this case, for 120.
“The last time this plant was seen was in 1902, it was actually a photograph of a plant in a flowerpot,” said Aaron Marcus, assistant botanist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “I haven’t found any literature that really tells the full story of why the plant was in a flowerpot.”
This 1902 sighting took place in a part of Chittenden County that has since become urbanized. Now, more than a century later, the plant is confirmed to have returned to Vermont landscapes, thanks to a retired greenhouse manager and ornithologist and his use of a popular identification app. Plant.
Tom Doubleday had used iNaturalist, a community science app, to ask for help identifying an unknown wildflower in July 2021.
Eleanor Ray was the first person to identify the sighting as a Small Whorled Pogonia, and community botanist John Gange was the first to bring it to the attention of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
Gange often goes to iNaturalist to confirm and correct sightings of orchid species, he said.
“When I first saw this listing without seeing the photo, 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 ground. It was amazing.”
Gange, Doubleday and Marcus returned to the site this spring, alongside the department’s chief botanist, Bob Popp, to confirm the regional rediscovery of the orchid while the plants were in bloom.
“To see them in Vermont, and to see so many with two flowers, which is quite unusual, was truly a privilege,” Gange said. “I wish I could have stayed there a little longer.”
Both Ray and Gange are plant conservation volunteers through a non-profit organization called the Native Plant Trust, which is the country’s first plant conservation organization and the only one that focuses solely on native plants. of New England.
“This network is truly valuable and important, and we would have much less understanding of the status of endangered plants in the state if it weren’t for all of our volunteers, because we don’t have the staff to power to monitor these plants on our own,” Marcus said.
Lesser Whorled Pogonia is historically found in the eastern United States and Ontario. Unlike many flowers, it is self-pollinating, and unlike many orchids, it photosynthesizes independently of fungi. It is, however, likely to depend on fungi for other functions.
Little is known about the habitat requirements of lesser whorled pogonia, although it can be seen growing in Maine and New Hampshire in areas with partial sun, such as forest edges and openings.
“Orchids are some of our most charismatic plants in Vermont. They evoke a lot of excitement and imagination, which is truly wonderful. I think something that really excites us about orchids is how mysterious they are,” Marcus said. “What little we understand of orchids is actually, I think, part of their plot.”
Still, the North American Orchid Conservation Center is working to cultivate all fungi associated with orchid roots in different states and ecological regions across the continent to learn more about the growing needs of orchids.
The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has collaborated with the organization in the past on researching other Vermont orchid species.
Marcus isn’t the only botanist involved in discovery to find orchids so mysteriously intriguing. Gange said his particular interest in orchids was “a bit of a mystery” even to himself.
“There’s something about them that 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 probably know it too,” Gange said. “There’s just kind of an attachment really, and just a need to know more about it.”
Gange’s expertise in orchid botany is largely self-taught with no formal training, he said, although he worked with an orchid research mentor, who has since died.
In addition to its many unique properties as a species, the small population of whorled pogonia recently discovered in Vermont is one of the northernmost populations in its entire global range, Marcus said. This is particularly important 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 effort personally, as had Gange on another occasion.
Lauren Chicote, operations manager for the Winooski Valley Park District, said the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife notified her organization of the rare orchid’s presence about a week ago. The two organizations have collaborated on similar conservation projects in the past.
“It kind of reiterates why we exist and why the Park District does what we do,” Chicote said. “It’s always just a really nice and exciting thing that really reminds us that we’re doing really important work.”
Rare orchids are at high risk from illegal picking, accidental trampling and other disturbances. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife keeps the exact location of known plants private for protection.
“It’s always a balance, with managing our parks for recreation and public access, but also for conservation,” Chicote said. “We will ensure there are no trails nearby, so there is no accidental trampling and we will continue to follow Fish & Wildlife’s advice to conceal the actual location.”
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies runs the Vermont Atlas of Life, a Vermont-based project within iNaturalist that has coordinated passionate community scientists to share observations since 2013, often leading to rediscoveries of plants similar to that of the small whorled pogonia.
“We have a lot of users now, and it’s really amazing; we discovered all kinds of things,” said Kent McFarland, creator and director of Vermont Atlas of Life. “Not something like this usually, but it’s pretty crazy.”
Vermont Atlas of Life uses iNaturalist software for a mechanism that automatically hides the location of threatened and sensitive plant species on iNaturalist, which may be at risk of trampling or poaching.
Doubleday also manually removed contact information from its iNaturalist post using the app’s privacy settings, just to be safe.
Marcus recommends people recreate responsibly across the state, especially in sensitive habitats. They advise Vermonters against picking slow-growing flower species, such as orchids or trilliums, which are susceptible and vulnerable to decline.
“I don’t mean, ‘Don’t go dandelions picking,'” they said. “Vermont has an incredible diversity of plant ecosystems and all the creatures that live there and it’s truly amazing. I want to encourage people to come out – you never know what you might find.