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Mountain Home Magazine

The Orchid Hunters

Sep 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Mark Simonis

When orchids are mentioned in conversation, most people think of the typical and familiar greenhouse orchids, many of which were originally found by explorers in what were then the most exotic and unknown parts of our planet. But did you know that there are orchids that grow in North America—and even closer to home, right here in the wilds of Tioga County? The large purple fringed orchid is just one example, and it rivals the beauty of even the world’s most precious and striking orchids.

Orchids belong to the family Orchidaceae, and it is one of the two largest families of flowering plants. There are an estimated 17,000 to 35,000 different species. The enchanting nature and broad diversity of orchids have attracted many explorers interested in finding and protecting these treasures. I am one of those explorers.

Since my 2014 retirement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I have thoroughly enjoyed the orchid treasure hunt, and our unique geological location is ideal for orchid exploring. When I started my quest, there were a mere fifteen species of orchids recorded in Tioga County. My exploration has contributed an additional nine species to that list. One of the newer and more striking finds has been the southern slender ladies’ tresses orchid (above), which blooms in August and through early September.

You may be wondering why are there so many orchids growing in Tioga County. It’s in part due to the well-preserved natural lands of the area, right at the terminus of the Late Wisconsin Glacier. The establishment of state forests and game lands has helped maintain and protect our forests and the diverse plants and animals that inhabit them—including our beautiful native orchids. Moreover, Tioga County’s relatively unexplored, remote location is far from large population centers and the fast-paced chaos of urban life, making it a peaceful and safe haven for all forms of wildlife and plants.

My motivation to continue exploring the forests of Tioga County each day comes from wanting to protect the orchids. While the southern slender ladies’ tresses are secure in their conservation status, nearly half of the over 200 orchid species in North America are threatened or endangered somewhere in their range. The beauty and desirability of orchids leads to poaching and habitat disturbance. They are also very sensitive to environmental changes such as temperature, drought, and damage from herbivores such as deer. Another special characteristic of orchids is their interaction with other species. Orchids rely on fungi and pollinators to survive and reproduce. Their need for a specialized habitat with the right conditions and other species make orchids great indicators of a healthy environment.

An exciting twist to my orchid explorations happened in 2020 when ecologist Melissa McCormick, PhD, with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, contacted me about some of the orchids I had found. Melissa is an orchid explorer herself, and one of the co-founders of the North American Orchid Conservation Center. Given that over half of the orchid species in the United States and Canada are listed as threatened or endangered, NAOCC’s primary initiative is to ensure the survival of these native orchids for future generations. To that end, it has established projects to collect and create archives of orchid seeds and mycorrhizal fungi—fungi that live within the soil—which the orchids need to survive. Moreover, NAOCC has created a network of collaborators across the United States and Canada—including many volunteers—who send in collection samples of rare and endangered orchids. Through these projects, and by supporting current research on orchid ecology and conservation, NAOCC hopes to serve as a centralized facilitator to promote and support a better understanding of the conditions orchids need for survival and restoration.

In 2021 and 2022, I guided Melissa and a few of her research colleagues to our local orchids. While we initially focused on the large purple fringed orchid, Platanthera grandiflora (pictured above and below in text), I recently led Melissa to thirteen of the other species. For ongoing research projects at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, they collected soil and root samples from each individual species, being very careful to avoid digging up or uprooting the delicate plants, which in most cases kills them. Their research will inform future orchid conservation efforts throughout all of North America, so that our great-great-grandchildren may see these breathtaking flowers, too.

The next time you are out in the wilds of Tioga County, many of you may explore and find some hidden treasures just as I have done. If so, remember that this leaves all of us a responsibility to protect our forests and native orchids by admiring them from a distance and not disturbing them. By respecting our lands, we hope to have beautiful hidden blooms and flourishing flora for years to come.

Melissa McCormick, PhD, Anai Morales, and Josephine Basch contributed to this story.

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