A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 326

Don’t even think of picking ‘em!


FARMINGTON -- I have been beguiled by orchids ever since wandering, over 40 years ago, through a section the Kibble Palace dedicated to the species. Their charm was an antidote to those bleak and rainy days that can envelop Glasgow for weeks on end and, for me, a visit to the city’s botanic gardens became a pleasant preoccupation on a Saturday afternoon, between the hours of 2:30 and 5 p.m., when the bars had to close to comply with the bizarre licensing laws of the time.

Decades passed, and my next encounter with orchids, or at least the mention of them, came in the late 1980s when there was serious talk of an East-West highway nudging through northern Strafford County. This proposal triggered even more serious opposition. There were multiple arguments against building the highway, and one that caught my attention was that a potential route for the road, near Parker Mountain, would impinge upon the territory of an endangered orchid, the Small Whorled Pogonia.

Hmm! I thought hard about the Small Whorled Pogonia, and in this very column in January of 1991, weighing the public’s right to know against the need for secrecy, I revealed the locations of several clumps of orchids in Farmington, using deductive reasoning

The yawning pothole known as Hackett’s Crevasse at the end of River Road, it became obvious, had been left as is, not because the town was mad at Farmington Corner, but because a colony of Small Whorled Pogonia lived just below the crater surface, and was biding its time before popping up. The flower box I had built in front of Dumontski’s Bar was occasionally tipped over, not as a prank, but because amateur botanists had heard a rumor of Small Whorled Pogonias dwelling therein.

At least few people took the column at face value, and I remember getting a very irate letter from a school teacher for being so cavalier with the location information!  

As a journalist, I had been on the periphery of the E-W highway debate, back then, by revealing that the state planned to obtain gravel for the road base by removing the top 500 feet of Mt. Major, in Alton, and renaming this beloved landmark Mt. Minor. My article, which was published on April 1, 1991, contained numerous indications of being a spoof, including a diatribe of opposition from a local conservationist, Dan D. Lyons, but a legion of enraged people -- probably the Small Whorled Pogonia crowd -- flew to the defense of the sacred mountain. Anyway … that whole road idea was eventually abandoned, and the handful of orchids in its potential path has been left undisturbed.

Orchids dropped off the news radar, although I always had a hankering to see a real Small Whorled Pogonia in the wild. Then, early in 2012, out of the blue, I was contacted by the daughter of an old friend from Glasgow, Mad Danny. Danny at the time was languishing in a Moroccan jail after being caught with several pounds of another plant – not an orchid – hidden in a camper. However, his daughter Siobhan, a talented artist in glass, had an exhibition of delicately fashioned Ghost Orchids in the Glass Flower Gallery of Harvard Museum of Natural History. She had emailed me for publicity for the show, perhaps confusing the Rochester Times with The New York Times.

My wife and I braved a bitter Boston day to see the glass Ghost Orchids, and I subsequently wrote a column about them and took a photograph. Siobhan wasn’t happy though … in fact she joined the list of people who have gotten mad at me over orchids, all because I also mentioned Mad Danny and the fate that had befallen him. I seem to have become a lightning rod for unfair criticism.

Thus I am treading very carefully with regards to the Small World Pogonia of 2013 … not only would I hate to stomp on it accidentally, but to disclose its location might be to deliver it into the paws of a ruthless collector. Suffice to say, that the photograph accompanying this column was taken on conservation land in neighboring Milton, just last week.

“This orchid is one of the rarest in the United States,” according to an EPA website. “Plant collectors love it. It usually grows alone in open areas within hardwood forests. For years this plant was found all over the eastern half of the country, but it began to disappear when forests were cleared for development. Small populations now exist in only 10 states.”

That may have been written a few years ago when it was an endangered species. Since then, all kinds of federal and state government agencies have dispatched eager botanists into tick-infested woods to locate the Small Whorled Pogonia, and now the orchid is merely a threatened species.

Still, the Smithsonian Institute writes that it has earned the title “rarest orchid east of the Mississippi.”  

The US Fish & Wildlife Service, whose crew is also in on the act, lists it as “extirpated in Missouri, New York, Vermont and Maryland. However, it was re-discovered in New York in 2010.”

“Extirpated,” for mere mortals, means totally destroyed.

There is at least one specimen left in New Hampshire, though, and I am rather haunted by this lonely orchid, and its even rarer twin flowers.  Apart from not picking it, one cannot even touch it, as the stem will retain a trace of salt from the human touch making it that much more likely that some salt-loving herbivore, like a deer or woodchuck, will come along and gromph it.

In closing, I would like to thank my guide, who, like the location, must remain undisclosed for the sake of preserving the Small Whorled Pogonia’s cover.

See Venice and die, goes the saying. See the Small Whorled Pogonia, blab about it, and die painfully, is the New Hampshire version. Well, I have been yelled at quite enough over orchids, so mum’s the word.


June 9, 2013

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