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The Mysterious Disappearing Orchid

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The small whorled pogonia is found in 15 states but often there are only one or two populations in each state.
Sabri Ben-Achour
The small whorled pogonia is found in 15 states but often there are only one or two populations in each state.

To find the small whorled pogonia, you have to travel down gravel roads, through locked gates and across streams in Prince William Forest. Melissa McCormick, a botanist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center whose work is sponsored by the National Park Service, doesn't want poachers to find this particular plant.

"It's already extirpated in Maryland, it's extirpated in D.C. -- 'extirpated' meaning essentially locally extinct," she says. "It was originally found up and down the East Coast. It's much more common in the Northeast, particularly in Maine, but even there, there are fewer than 100 populations of this orchid. Many populations have fewer than 20 plants in them."

McCormick says this orchid has been put at risk in particular by the development of the forest habitats. The flower itself is tiny, a mere 3 inches.

"It has a single stem. It has five leaflets usually, the leaflets are held like an umbrella. It has a whitish yellowish flower that comes right out of the center of those five leaflets. It almost looks like a mouth, a little face," she says.

Although this orchid is particularly showy, McCormick says, gardeners sometimes seek it out because its so different. But if you wanted to dig it up, you'd have to dig up the whole forest.

"If you don't have the right trees and the right fungus, this orchid will not grow," she says.

Underground, the roots of this flower are dependent on one special type of fungus. Totally dependent, in fact: This plant is a parasite. It has tamed its fungus into bringing it nutrients that it can't get at itself.

The fungus itself gets carbon from the trees, and the orchid gets nutrients for the fungus. Which fungus it's connected to is just one of a pile of mysteries inside this plant.

"An individual plant can die back below ground for several years at a time, and then re-emerge," McCormick says.

Basically, this little plant decides, "I'm really just not into getting my energy from the sun this year. I'd rather just sit this year out." It then retreats under ground and gets all of its energy from the web of fungal threads and tree roots beneath the surface.

And when you look at maps of where this orchid grows, it makes no sense. Populations just vanish entirely and then new ones sprout hundreds of miles away.

"A population that had 30 plants will suddenly now have one or two in any given year. Why is that? We don't know," McCormick says.

These are the questions that McCormick is trying to figure out, because she's trying to help save this orchid -- in part because, Who knows what other secrets this plant holds?

"That's always the end thing about conserving biodiversity is you never know what might be out there that you haven't discovered. What if it produces some novel fungicides that are really important for preventing fungal disease?" she says.

But also because of it's connectedness.

"Understanding what we need to do in order to save this orchid basically means identifying what it is that we need to do to keep an intact, functioning ecosystem that can support a wide variety of plants and animals."

It's all a puzzle, says McCormick. In fact, she says, it's the ultimate puzzle. And this tiny orchid is a big piece.

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