Six pairs of eyes meticulously comb through the open understory of the hardwood forest. Small green plants blanket the forest floor, having just broken through a thick layer of dead leaves. This forest ecosystem, mixed with just a touch of sunlight, creates the perfect habitat conditions for the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi River, the small whorled pogonia.
“The threatened small whorled pogonia hasn’t been documented here since 2012,” Johnny Townsend, the state botanist, tells me “Although plants that are commonly associated with the pogonia are found all throughout this area, which is a hopeful sign.”
The small whorled pogonia is found in 18 eastern states and Ontario, Canada, but it still considered rare because their isolated populations usually consist of less than 20 plants. The plant is named for it’s whorled arrangement of five to six leaves just beneath the flower, which stands between 10-14 inches tall. The pononia can be found in older hardwood stands of beech, birch, maple, oak, and hickory trees with an open understory and a thick layer of dead leaves. What makes documenting the pogonia particularly difficult is that it can remain dormant for many years without emerging from the leaves.
While I’m no botanist, discovering new plants and ecosystems turned out to be quite the adventure. On our two separate quests for wildflowers, we discovered other rare and beautiful species, including the smooth coneflower, or Echinacea laevigata, and clematis. We also discovered that small-whorled pogonia has an almost identical lookalike, called Indian cucumber root. You can tell the difference between the two species by looking closely at their stems.
Some other fun finds along the way included a box turtle, some gorgeous fungi, and more wildflowers! The diverse array of species is a great indicator of a healthy habitat.
As we continued our search into the forest, we stumbled onto what we came here for. To our surprise, the small whorled pogonia was preparing to flower, another rare sight! The small whorled pogonia doesn’t flower every year, but when they do, flowers only last a few days.
After documenting the habitat’s slope, sunlight, and proximity to water and the forest’s edge, we continued looking and discovered three more plants nearby. Finding only four small individual pogonia plants may not seem like much, but this small population is a huge step in learning how to protect the species.
Not only was finding this federally threatened orchid rewarding , it gives Service biologists at the Virginia Field Office an idea of how well the plant is surviving when faced with possible threats to their habitat. Projects like roadway repairs, building construction, and forest clearing can all impact this delicate ecosystem’s balance. Finding this population after recent construction in the area is a hopeful sign they will continue to thrive.
Knowing more about these ecosystems also helps biologist make informed management decisions and protect our endangered and threatened species. Click here to learn more about small whorled pogonia and other threatened and endangered species work happening in Virginia!