A Hike in the Woods to See the State's Newly Discovered Endangered Orchid | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Hike in the Woods to See the State's Newly Discovered Endangered Orchid

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Published June 29, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Tom Doubleday (standing) with John Gange on the orchid excursion - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN
  • Anne Wallace Allen
  • Tom Doubleday (standing) with John Gange on the orchid excursion

The mood was festive as a quartet of botanists made its way toward Vermont's newly discovered rare orchid, the small whorled pogonia.

Though the hilly, wooded terrain of the Winooski River Valley was typical Vermont topography, this was no ordinary day of fieldwork. Botanists tend go out alone to identify plants, take samples and carry out other tasks, said state botanist Bob Popp, who led the mid-June expedition. On this trip, the social energy was high, as the four stopped frequently to debate the identity of this or that species and reminisce about other rare plant encounters.

The trip also felt like a treat, Popp said, because they were headed to see a newly discovered rare and endangered orchid that hadn't been spotted in Vermont in more than a century, since 1902. It's one of just three plants in the state on the federal endangered species list.

"It's a special occasion," said Popp, who has been working for Vermont as a botanist for 32 years.

Popp and his colleagues received a wave of local and regional media attention after the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department announced the identification of the orchid in May. Botany expert Tom Doubleday of Colchester, a retired horticulturalist who spends hours each week in the woods looking for rare plants, had posted a photo of his find last summer on the iNaturalist science app, asking for help identifying it. iNaturalist is a social network used by community members, scientists and others to share and map their observations of plants and animals. Doubleday made the discovery in the Winooski Valley Park District, which encompasses 1,750 acres across several sites in Chittenden County.

John Gange of Shelburne, a 20-year-old authority on the flowering plants, recognized the find and let Popp's office know.

Gange and Doubleday traipsed to the site on May 25 with Popp and Aaron Marcus, an assistant botanist for the state, to confirm the discovery. In a press release soon after, Popp called the discovery "astounding."

A few weeks later, the four returned to see how the small whorled pogonias were doing, this time accompanied by a reporter sworn to secrecy about the exact location. All photos had to be taken in a manner that wouldn't give away the plants' location.

"There's a lunatic fringe out there; there are people who might actually dig this up," Popp said, noting that he and his colleagues have deflected dozens of queries about where the orchid community is located. "That's pretty rare, but it has happened."

The four botanists are close colleagues who share a broad knowledge of plant taxonomy and an unquenchable enthusiasm for finding and identifying Vermont's flora. As the party traveled through the woods on this day, it frequently stopped to examine ferns and other species that carpet the forest floor, including the tiny Medeoloa virginiana, a lily that tastes like cucumber and that ended up in this reporter's sandwich.

Nearly half a century of living separates Gange — who is headed to New College in Sarasota, Fla., in the fall to study orchids — and Doubleday, 68. Popp is 70 and plans to retire this fall. But the four had much to talk about.

Gange has been identifying orchids since ninth grade and said his parents are accustomed to pulling the car over on trips so he can investigate a likely looking orchid site spotted from the road.

"I can make a guess based on the habitat," said Gange, who has spotted orchids in Norway, Ecuador and Costa Rica, too.

"The rules in Costa Rica are different," he noted. "Here, you're always looking at the ground; there, you're usually looking at the trees."

Gange is writing a book on orchids, and he chose New College in part because it's located near the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which is dedicated to the study of orchids.

On the recent trip to see the small whorled pogonia, Gange relished a chance to get into the weeds on the topic with his companions.

"It's really a rare pleasure to be able to go on and on about orchids," Gange said. "I don't often get to talk to people about plants the way I like to."

Whorled pogonia orchid - COURTESY OF JOHN GANGE
  • Courtesy Of John Gange
  • Whorled pogonia orchid

With 25,000 species, orchids belong to one of the world's largest families of flowering plants, and they are known for their showy flowers. But some orchids, like the small whorled pogonia, are more low-key. The plant is small and hard to spot, with an unassuming white flower.

When the four reached the site of the cluster, the real work began. Stepping gingerly around the patch in order to avoid trampling the plants, Gange and the others peered under the low-growing greenery for the nine specimens they had observed in May. Gange discovered that two or three appeared to be missing; bite evidence on other plants suggested they'd been devoured by slugs.

He was philosophical about this development, even though it could mean trouble for the long-term survival of the Vermont patch. There are an estimated 80 to 300 populations of the species globally, Marcus said.

"I wouldn't say it spells doom for the population, but it's a little ominous," Gange said of the slug casualties. "It depends on how many plants will be felled next year."

The quartet also took the opportunity to search a nearby hill for a tiny fern called botrychium or moonwort. Relying on GPS and memory, the group clambered over mossy rocks and fallen trees and through cobwebby branches to reach the place where Gange and Marcus had seen the fern once before. But the search of the forest floor was unsuccessful.

"Those things are devilishly small," Gange said.

When they're in the office, Popp and Marcus are responsible for monitoring Vermont's plants, assessing their status, and recommending plant management strategies to landowners and developers. Like botanists in other New England states, they collect the seeds of rare plants for banking with the Native Plant Trust, a plant conservation organization, and conduct inventories of the plants growing in natural communities such as cedar swamps, limestone cliffs and wetlands.

The two are the only botanists employed by the state and, as such, rely heavily on amateur botanists like Doubleday, Popp said. The growth of apps such as iNaturalist make it easier for them to contribute to the research.

'There have always been people tuned in to the natural environment, but they had no way of reporting their finds," Popp said. "This provides an amazing avenue for them."

Marcus' primary job is to manage a database of 600 plants that Vermont lists as rare and endangered. Orchids, Marcus said, are canaries in the coal mine — a species whose fate could portend trouble for other, more hardy plants.

"A lot of our orchid species are declining in Vermont and across the region broadly," Marcus said. "There are probably multiple causes."

Overall, the plant population is not static; new invasives are taking hold, and patches of some fragile species are declining. And discoveries are still being made. Marcus and Popp recently started investigating whether a well-known plant called the sticky false asphodel uses its tacky stem to trap — and digest — small insects.

"Everybody just figured it was an adaptation to keep insects from munching on it, but now there is some indication it might trap insects and use their nutrients," Popp said. Vermont has three other carnivorous plants: the pitcher plant, the sundew and the bladderwort.

The overall goal of the state's botany work is to protect diversity and the natural environment. Popp acknowledged that the small whorled pogonia is so rare it probably doesn't play a large role in that mission. But it's critical nonetheless, he said. If the plant dies out, it's an evolutionary dead end.

"The plant has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and if you snip it out and lose all those genes, who knows where they are going?" Popp said. "And who are we to say this other form of life isn't that important?"

Correction, June 30, 2022: John Gange's name was misspelled in a photo caption in an earlier version of this story.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Forest Find"