The plant was last documented in Vermont in 1902, Aaron Marcus, an assistant botanist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, told CNN. Naturalists had searched extensively for Vermont’s small whorled pogonia, but they had returned empty-handed.
Lesser Whorled Pogonia is “one of the rarest orchid species east of the Mississippi,” Marcus said. The rarity of the species could be linked to its dependence on fungi present in the environment, a relationship still poorly understood by scientists.
“One thing that’s really cool about our orchid species is that most of them are really, really dependent on fungal species, species that we can’t see underground, wired into our system. root, which makes it so hard for us to understand orchids and what they need,” Marcus said.
The last known documentation of a small whorled pogonia in Vermont was a photograph of a plant that had been dug up and placed in a flowerpot, Marcus said.
The discovery of an outcrop of the plant in Vermont is “a really great and exciting bright light,” Marcus said. The population is “perhaps the northernmost population of the entire range of Lesser Whorled Pogonia”, found from southern Maine to southern Georgia and west to southern Ontario , Michigan and Tennessee.
Orchids are threatened by climate change, habitat loss, and collection or trampling by humans.
“It was very exciting” to discover the orchid, said Marcus.
“The most important thing is to protect the plants where they are,” Marcus added. “It’s really our first priority, that they can thrive there.” The factories are located on protected public land in the Winooski Valley Park District, and the department is keeping their exact location secret to ward off would-be collectors.
For Marcus, the discovery is an “incredible and humbling” reminder of how much scientists still have to learn about the natural world. “There’s more to discover there,” Marcus said. “There’s so much in our backyards that we just don’t know, or that we once knew and need to relearn.”
Botanist Bob Popp shared Marcus’ excitement over the “incredible discovery”.
“Things like that don’t happen that often,” Popp told CNN. “I’ve been in my position for 32 years, and more often than not I document species decline,” he said. “Things are going the other way – it’s just phenomenal.”
Going forward, Popp said his team members hope to monitor the population. They found evidence of slug damage to some of the plants, and the orchids may also be at risk from browsing by animals such as deer.
Popp also stressed the importance for naturalists to “report what they see” to the outdoors. “There is no substitute for eyes and ears in the woods,” he said.