'Extinct' Orchid Found in Vermont for First Time in Over 100 Years

A rare species of orchid, thought to be extinct in Vermont for more than 100 years, has been found in the state, to the astonishment of botanists.

The small whorled pogonia had not been seen in Vermont since 1902, despite multiple unsuccessful searches, and was believed to have died out in the state, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

However, a small group of the delicate plants has now been documented in Winooski Valley Park District, Chittenden County.

"Discovering a viable population of a federally threatened species unknown in our state for over a century is astounding. It's Vermont's equivalent of rediscovering the ivory-billed woodpecker," Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department Botanist Bob Popp said in a statement.

The orchid population was found thanks to the work of John Gange and Tom Doubleday, two local community scientists from Shelburne and Colchester respectively. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department will not reveal the exact location of the population to protect the rare species.

The small whorled pogonia next to a stock image from Winooski Valley. iStock / Getty Images Plus / Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department

"John is a passionate and skilled botanist who specializes in orchids and closely follows the sightings people report on the community science app iNaturalist," Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department Assistant Botanist Aaron Marcus said. "John noticed that birder and retired greenhouse manager Tom Doubleday had used iNaturalist to ask for help identifying an unfamiliar wildflower last July and reached out to us with the news that the small whorled pogonia had very likely just been discovered in Vermont."

Sometimes called "the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi," the small whorled pogonia is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species, and is considered to be an endangered species by most states where it natively grows—14 of the total 18 list it as endangered.

The rare orchid, also known by its scientific name Isotria medeoloides, or by its nickname "little five leaves," is usually found along the Appalachian range, from Ontario southwards, with three primary population centers located in New England, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and coastal Virginia.

Its name comes from its characteristic elliptical whorled pointed leaves, of which it usually possesses five. The orchid also has one or two yellow-green flowers when in bloom, which it was when Gange and Doubleday found the new Vermont population. Only 104 populations of the orchid are known to exist and most of these are very small, each containing fewer than 25 individual plants.

The reason that this species of orchid is so rare is due to the destruction of its habitat, due to land development from woodlands for use in housing, industrial, or highway development.

Other threats include being eaten by deer, slugs and insects, being trampled by populations of wild pigs or run over by off-road vehicles, and even being picked by people for use in horticulture or research.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department now plans to work with the Winooski Valley Park District to look for more samples of the small whorled pogonia nearby, and to keep an eye on the population to ensure it stays safe from the dangers it often faces in terms of habitat destruction.

"We're incredibly fortunate that this small whorled pogonia population is on land protected by the Winooski Valley Park District," said Popp. "It speaks to the importance of habitat conservation. When we conserve a piece of land, we rarely know all the species that are there, but we do know that conserving intact natural communities yields the best odds for supporting Vermont's biodiversity, from common species to rare ones."