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Small whorled pogonia in bloom. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division.

Small whorled pogonia in bloom. Photo courtesy of Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division/Creative Commons.

An Orchid Rises Again in Ohio

The small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides), a federally threatened plant, is not easy to find in Ohio. In fact, there are only two locations in Ohio where this plant has ever been documented. At one site the plant was photographed once and has not been seen since. The other site in Ohio occurs at an outdoor camp for students. During the summer kids boldly explore the woods, streams, caves and fields of this site in southeast Ohio. However, in the winter the site is quiet with frozen streams and very little human activity.

In January of this year, biologists from the Columbus, Ohio, Ecological Services Field Office joined with individuals from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Natural Areas and Preserves to conduct management activities at the site. We trekked through the cold woods with our equipment, including a chainsaw, rakes, associated safety gear and other tools. We were grateful that the weather was much warmer -- a predicted high of 35° F -- compared to extreme cold that occurred the weeks before when we had originally planned to visit the site.

This small-whorled pogonia, a threatened orchid, is the first to be found on this Ohio site since 2008. Photo by Keith Lott/USFWS.
This small-whorled pogonia, a threatened orchid, is the first to be found on this Ohio site since 2008. Photo by Keith Lott/USFWS.

When we arrived, the fence around the site had been bent by a fallen tree. We worked to cut up and remove the downed tree and straighten this section of fence. The former deer exclosures, which had not been used for years, were dismantled and packed up. The real management was the clearing of several small trees with a chainsaw to allow more sunlight to penetrate the canopy and the removal of downed logs and the thick layer of leaves. Some of the fresh fallen logs were removed while those in advanced state of decay were left to provide nutrients for fungi. Leaves were blown outside of the fenced in area with a leaf blower and the entire site was raked to create some soil disturbance. After several hours we packed up our gear and made the long trek back to our vehicles. The small whorled pogonia had not been seen at the site since 2008, and we did not know if our work would be fruitful or not.

This June, at the end of a long week of field work, I received an email saying that an orchid had been seen! It was not blooming but it was there! I looked at the photos and eagerly shared the news with my office. The next week we went to visit the site to see the plant for ourselves. After some thorough searching and careful walking through the site, we found a vegetative plant and proceeded to photograph it and take some field notes. As we explored the site we were amazed to find another vegetative plant! We took photos of this plant as well to document it, as no one in our group had observed small whorled pogonia before. After reviewing all the information, we submitted the photos to the state botanist who has now confirmed that both plants are small whorled pogonia. The last time we had this many plants at this site was more than 10 years ago!

We will continue to monitor this site in future years. Both plants are located in the uphill portion of the site, where we did more intense removal of leaves. We may consider doing more intense leaf removal on the downhill portion in future years. We did not know if our winter work would have much impact and due to the erratic nature of orchids we will never know for sure if our winter management was responsible for the return of the plant or if it was cool spring temperatures or the significant amount of rain we received this year. We definitely did not expect a response so quickly but we are pleased to see the plants and hopeful that we will see them again next year---maybe they will even be flowering!

By Jennifer Finfera
Columbus Ecological Services Field Office

Last updated: June 8, 2020