Unraveling the mystery of one of our rarest orchids

For Susi, the small whorled pogonia hits close to home—literally. She recently stumbled upon a population of small whorled pogonias in her own backyard. After opening the forest canopy a little, the population climbed from an average of four stems to 15 stems each year. Credit: USFWS

For Susi, the small whorled pogonia hits close to home—literally. She has a population of small whorled pogonias in her own backyard. After opening the forest canopy a little, the population climbed from an average of four stems to 15 stems each year. Credit: USFWS

Even if you’re lucky enough to stroll past one of the nation’s rarest native orchids, you might not take notice of it.

The modest small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) grows from a few inches to almost one foot tall and has just single whorl, or circle, formed by five to six leaves around its green stem. If you happen across it on one of the few days out of the year when it is blooming, the plant looks almost like a tiny face, with the mouth as a single yellowish-green flower.

Found in hardwood forests, this pogonia was first discovered in 1814 and has since been considered extremely rare. Populations of the plant appear sporadically from New Hampshire to Georgia, and since the small whorled pogonia was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1982, the number of known sites where it occurs has increased from 33 to over 150. Currently, there are 51 known populations of this pogonia located throughout central New Hampshire.

Did you know we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act? Check out stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’re sharing them throughout the year!

Much of its life history remains a mystery, but recent studies have clued biologists in to this rare woodland orchid’s specific habitat needs.

“Across the Northeast, we’re seeing evidence that increasing small light gaps through the forest canopy can eventually increase the number of plants,” says Susi von Oettingen, a biologist in the Service’s New England Field Office.

This theory has really taken off over the last 10 years, culminating with the publication of a study released earlier this year. But to really understand, we must dig farther back, to East Alton, New Hampshire, in the late 1980s. …Keep reading this story!

More about the small whorled pogonia:

One Comment on “Unraveling the mystery of one of our rarest orchids

  1. Pingback: Happy 40th, Endangered Species Act! | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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