MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Moving away from the beach and the boardwalk, we turn now to the forest and the story of a very unusual plant. As environmental reporter Sabri Ben-Achour tells us, it's struggling just to survive.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
I can't tell you where I am, other than saying I'm in Prince William Forest. Because we are headed to a secret place deep in the woods where the small-whorled pogonia grows.
DR. MELISSA MCCORMACK
It's already been extirpated in Maryland. It's extirpated in D.C. with extirpated meaning essentially locally extinct.
With me is Melissa McCormack, botanist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. And she doesn't want poachers to find this particular plant.
It was originally found sort of up and down the East Coast. It is much more common in the Northeast, particularly in Maine. But even there, there are sort of, you know, fewer than a hundred populations of this orchid. Many populations have fewer than 20 plants in them.
Deeper and deeper into the woods we go down gravel roads and through locked gates.
This orchid has been particularly endangered by development of the forest habitats where it occurs.
Across a few streams and hillsides and we're there.
So these are the plants right here. There's a little one right here next to this flag. So this is one that's flowering and that's one that's flowering.
Yes, they're tiny.
Yes, they are very tiny. Three inches. It has a single stem. It has five leaflets held sort of like an umbrella and the small white-ish yellow flower that comes right out of the center it almost looks like it's a mouth, a little face, little mouth.
Do people actually want this orchid?
Yes, they do. I realize it's not a big, showy orchid but gardeners have this thing sometimes where they want something that's new and different.
After seeing this plant, just take my word for it, you really don't want it. But it is extraordinary because if you wanted to dig it up you'd basically have to dig up the whole forest.
If you don't have the right trees and the right fungus, this orchid will not grow.
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 brining it nutrients that it can't get at itself. And there's more.
The fungus that it relies on itself has a nice two-way exchange going on with some of the trees around here. Some of the oaks, the hickories, the beeches.
The fungus gets carbon from the trees, the orchid gets nutrients from the fungus. In a sense it's parasitizing the trees too. It's almost like "Avatar" how connected this little organism is. And just which fungus it's connected to is just one of a pile of mysteries inside of this plant.
An individual plant can die back below ground for several years at a time and then re-emerge.
Basically, this little guy decides, you know what, I'm really just not into getting my energy from the sun this year. I'd rather just sit this year out. It retreats underground and gets all of its energy from the web of fungal threads and tree roots beneath the surface.
So you can see the flags here are next to where we have seen plants in the past. This one and this one currently don't have a plant up next to them.
And when you look at maps at where this orchid grows it makes no sense. Populations just vanish entirely, just die off and then new ones sprout hundreds of miles away.
You know, a population that had 30 plants will suddenly now have one or two. Why is that? And we don't know.
These are the questions that McCormack 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 sort of the end thing about conserving bio-diversity 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?
But also because of its connectedness.
Because 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.
Its all a puzzle says McCormack. In fact, it's the ultimate puzzle she says and this tiny orchid is a big piece. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
For a glimpse at this extraordinary orchid, check our website, metroconnection.org.
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