Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Hunt for the Small Whorled Pogonia: one of North America's Rarest Orchids

*Part I* *Part II*

Everyone has a dream that seems just beyond the reach of reality.  It's not out of the realm of possibility per se but rather something that has been more or less relegated as a thing of daydreams and wishful thinking.  For your narrator, few, if any thing on the botanical bucket list exceeds the lust and desire to see one of North America's rarest of orchids in full, spectacular flower.  The small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) is a taxon of legend when it comes to chasing orchids and rare plants in general.  Its fickle and unpredictable flowering cycle mixed with an encompassing scarcity make it a plant lucky few have witnessed in the flesh.  In my never-ending drive to see and photograph all of Ohio's indigenous orchids, the small whorled pogonia was one I thought might haunt my goal for years to come...

Mountains on the horizon at sunset in northern Georgia

Fortunately, that's where two of my fellow orchid aficionado Flickr friends in Alan Cressler and Jim Fowler come into play.  Both are marvelous photographers and have a very in-depth knowledge of the botanical world around them.  I highly encourage you to check out Alan's work on Flickr by clicking HERE and Jim's by clicking HERE.  Jim also writes and publishes a nature blog on his travels and discoveries which is second to none and accessible by going to

Around this time last year I noticed both of them publish phenomenal photos of the small whorled pogonia that I couldn't take my eyes off of nor keep myself from salivating at the computer monitor.  If anyone was going to be able to help me finally cross this monumental lifer off my list, it was them.  Fortunately, Alan, Jim, and I were able to arrange a rendezvous in northern Georgia this past weekend to see if we could find these delightful wonders in flower.  It was over a seven hour drive to the town of Ellijay on the edges of Chattahoochee National Forest for me and with each mile my excitement grew tenfold.  I arrived into town on Friday night in anticipation for our Saturday morning meet up and enjoyed a fine dinner in a local establishment where I struck up some entertaining and enlightening conversation with the bartender and a few locals.  They were pretty intrigued a Yankee would drive so far south for a plant but their interest was genuine and I enjoyed filling them in on my passion and the details of my trip.

Saturday dawned bright and cool with a clear blue sky but by the time Alan, Jim, myself, and esteemed Georgia botanist, Max Medley met up at our predesignated meeting spot, dark clouds promising rain loomed on the horizon.  I greatly prefer overcast conditions when out to specifically partake in wildflower photography but rain rarely makes a photographer's life any easier.  Luckily the only rain that ever materialized was some light drizzle or passing showers and never caused much delay or problems for us.

After packing my gear into Jim's car and Max's into Alan's, we headed out for the first of two potential sites for the small whorled pogonia deep inside the mountains and valleys of Chattahoochee National Forest.  It produced a handful of blooming individuals last year and has proved to be pretty reliable in years past so we had high hopes of finding our bounty in good shape.  After pulling off at a very nondescript spot on the road, we shouldered our loads and headed off into the woods.  I had come a long way and spent countless hours dreaming of a moment that now seemed only minutes away.  Not long into our search, Alan and Jim located the specific spot for the orchids and beckoned Max and I to them and delivered some good and bad news...

Flowering and sterile specimens of small whorled pogonia

The good news was the location had produced five flowering individuals and a number of other sterile stems but the bad news was our timing could have been a little better.  The plants were four or five days past peak with some looking better than others.  I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't at least somewhat disappointed but by the same token I'd be called a liar too if I didn't say I was still enthralled with our discovery.  Not everyone is likely to find this green orchid very attractive and some might even think, "you drove all that way for that?!", but it was priceless to me and one of the most gorgeous plants I ever have or ever will see.

Federally threatened Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

I broke out my camera equipment and proceeded to attempt to capture what freshness the flowering plants had left and found myself in constant awe of just how tiny they were.  I knew they would be small, it's in their name after all but nothing quite prepares you for seeing them with your own two eyes.  As the rain started to patter down, we decided to make for the second site where we might have better luck at finding fresher orchids due to an increase in elevation.  It was only known to harbor a few individuals in any given year but I'd come too far to not enthusiastically and confidently move forward.

Alan led us through the mountains of Chattahoochee on a dazzling route full of hemlock and rhododendron-lined streams, acidic upland oak woodlands ensconced in flame azaleas at peak flower, and forested seeps full of alluring plant life and I will bring all that to you in my next post.  For now, I want to focus on the primary goal of my journey and devote this entire post to the splendor of the small whorled pogonia.

After several hours of exploring the roadsides and accompanying forest on our way to the second site and new lifer after new lifer photographed and scribbled down on my life list, we finally pulled into what would be my last hope at seeing an orchid that I would have driven 5,000 miles to see and not just the previous day's 500.  I had no idea what to expect and my stomach was in knots as we hiked up into a white pine forest where the plants were known to occur.  In the end my worries and nervousness were for naught as Alan, Jim, Max, and I found three pogonias in unspoiled, newly-opened condition!  Alan's hunch on these being in better shape due to cooler temperatures at a higher elevation was spot on.

Federally threatened Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

The small whorled pogonia is a federally threatened species and only occurs in a select number of locations throughout eastern North America, where populations usually only exist as a handful of plants or even just a lone individual.  Its habitat of second-growth, semi-open acidic woodlands is hardly a rare occurrence throughout its range and shouldn't act as any kind of limiting factor in its scarcity.  I believe it to be genuinely rare regardless of habitat availability but am under the impression there are still quite a few unknown stations left to discover.  Being tiny, green, and flowering during the awkward floral transition of spring to summer adds up to create quite the proverbial "needle in a haystack" scenario.

Federally threatened Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

Even at first glance it's easy to see the physical similarities and relations to its brethren, the large whorled pogonia (I. verticillata).  Both have succulent-esque stems with an emerald skirt of whorled leaves and are adorned with a dragon-like inflorescence.

Small Whorled Pogonia next to a nickel

As previously mentioned, I was flabbergasted at the miniscule nature of this lime green orchid.  If anything should get across the size and dimensions of the small whorled pogonia, it's the photograph above that shows a nickel placed alongside the plant.  No photoshop trickery or sorcery here, they legitimately can be that teeny and puny.  It makes you wonder how anyone, looking or not could ever come across these things.

Can you see what Jim is photographing in this capture?

Three small whorled pogonias in flower, three photographers itching to get some lens time with them; I'd say those numbers worked out perfectly.  We took our time carefully capturing the essence and character of each pogonia and moved in a circular fashion, trading off between plants.  Above is Jim admiring the dainty pogonia before him with his camera setup. Even when you know it's there and can follow the camera's stare down to it, it's still somewhat tricky to see the orchid.  Tiny things indeed!

The small whorled pogonia is ready for its closeup 

The history of the small whorled pogonia in Ohio is a very short and relatively recent story.  It has only ever been seen within the buckeye state at two sites: one in Shawnee state forest discovered by the late orchid great Fred Case in 1985, and the other discovered a few years later in the Hocking Hills region.  Only the latter occurrence is still "extant" today but hasn't been seen since 2008 when a single sterile stem came up.  A pipe dream of mine is to stumble across a new site in Shawnee state forest one time and know I could then die happy as a successful and accomplished field botanist and naturalist.

So tiny, so rare, so absolutely beautiful

The already darkened conditions of the white pine forest combined with the sullen gray clouds overhead made for some rather tricky lighting conditions but that hardly did anything to stop the onslaught of photographs being taken by the trio of orchid obsessers.  Even though Jim and Alan had photographed these very plants just a year ago, I wasn't the least bit surprised to see them enjoying another round with the treasures.  Small whorled pogonias are notorious for being able to go dormant and disappear into a subterranean holding pattern that can last for multiple years.  It's definitely best to take advantage of every opportunity with these unpredictable orchids as you never know if or when it could be your last.

Small Whorled Pogonia
Shot of the pogonia's habitat 

Of Ohio's 48 species/varieties/hybrids of naturally-occurring orchids, I have now had the pleasure of seeing 47. Being just barely shy of 98% complete with one of my most passion-driven and desirable botanical goals is something I take a lot of personal pride and happiness in and can't believe the long awaited small whorled pogonia is no longer orchid enemy #1.  I still have the highest of hopes to see this species within Ohio's borders one day in the near or far future but seeing it in the mountains of northern Georgia is undoubtedly the next best thing and a moment I'll cherish and treasure for the rest of my life.

Small whorled pogonia dwarfed by Alan's camera setup

While the first site's orchids were well past peak flowering condition and left something to be desired, I didn't realize just how unsatisfactory they were until I made the acquaintance of the second site's blooming plants.  They were so crisp, so detailed, so richly highlighted, we hypothesized they might have broken bud within the past 24 hours or so.  In the photo above, Alan's camera set up dwarfs one of the three pogonias at the second location. If only these orchids were sentient and could sense just how famous they were to us three Orchidaceae lovers.  The stories they might be able to tell of past visitors and what exactly makes them tick is an intriguing thought.

Jim, Alan, and myself (camera pictured) all with a pogonia each, attempting to capture its essence

After hundreds upon hundreds of photographs it was time to depart the site and allow the pogonias to return to the mists of the past.  I could not have had more fun out in the field with Alan, Jim, and Max, and am forever indebted to their efforts, knowledge, and willingness to share locations and information.  I hope I can repay them in the near future by playing host for a trip up north to explore what Ohio has to offer that Georgia lacks.  The same is to be said about heading back down to visit them again sometime this year.  Despite only meeting them in person for the first time earlier that day, I walked away feeling like we'd been old friends for years and went out botanizing and photographing once a week like clockwork.  It will be a long time before I forget what happened on this memorable weekend of botany in a place I'd never been before.  There's plenty more to share and talk about so stay tuned to more from my time spent in Chattahoochee National Forest.

*Part I* *Part II*


  1. Excellent recounting of a wonderful time in the north Georgia mountains. Your prose took me back to the site and held me there, getting all excited again. You did not leave out a single moment of that wonderful trip. I'm so looking forward to your recounting of the rest of the trip. -- Jim Fowler

  2. Many years ago an elderly friend who was a native orchid aficionado took me to two populations of small whorled pogonia so I could photograph the flowers. They grew in an oak forest that looked similar to thousands of other acres that don't host the plant. He wouldn't share the locations for fear that museum collectors would take the plants as we had seen happen with another rare orchid. He's long gone now and, unfortunately, I couldn't relocate the plants.