An orange-yellow orchid that has eluded botanists for almost two decades has been rediscovered in the state of Massachusetts. The rare, endangered plant has been the subject of speculation since falling off the radar in 2001, and botanists remain so concerned for its preservation that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has made an impactful decision.
They decided not to reveal the exact location of the orchid’s 2020 reappearance.
It was rare-plant expert Dr. Robert Wernerehl of MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program who came across eight crested fringed orchid—Platanthera cristata—plants growing wild in August. Wernerehl claimed that the rediscovery of this striking plant took his breath away.
While the botanist was happy to publicize that the “diminutive orchid with striking orange blooms” was found growing on partially protected public land in Bristol County, specific location details remain closely guarded.
“Given the condition of the site, and the knowledge that many botanists have searched fruitlessly for this rarity for years, I was not at all expecting to find it,” Wernerehl told WWLP. “But while forcing my way through dense shrubby thickets laden with poison ivy, I kept reminding myself to move slowly and keep looking.
“Glancing down,” he continued, describing his discovery, “a bright orange spot in the tangle of branches caught my eye, and as I bent over the plant, I knew immediately I had found it.”
Wernerehl claimed he experienced momentary disbelief before confirming that the orange-yellow orchid in front of him truly was the elusive flora of almost 20 years.
The botanist further described the location of the orchid’s reappearance as “a shrubby wetland thicket of sweet pepperbush, swamp azalea, and poison ivy” but did not divulge place names or coordinates for the sake of the immediate preservation of this reemerging species.
Prior to its last appearance in 2001, the orange-yellow blossoming orchid had only been documented in the state in 1905, 1908, and 1987, reports MassWildlife. State botanists had conducted repeated survey efforts over the years, but to no avail.
The eight plants newly identified in Bristol County represent the northernmost known population of the crested fringed orchid in the United States and the only known appearance of the flowering plant in New England. Its closest known neighbors are growing wild on Long Island, New York.
The crested fringed orchid typically begins blooming in August, according to a Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife fact sheet, preferring the damp, acidic soil of bogs, wet meadows, and swamps. The striking orange-yellow blooms can reach between 1 and 5 inches in length, and slim, nectar-filled spurs attract bumblebees—the orchid’s primary pollinator.
The crested fringed orchids that have emerged in Bristol County remain at risk of environmental turbulence, invasive species, fires, and predation by the local deer population. The species is still registered “Endangered” by the state.
However, Wernerehl, discussing his discovery with MassWildlife, noted that the timing of the rare species’s reappearance was truly notable, as 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Massachusetts’s Endangered Species Act.
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