The Whorled Pogonia

I live for moments like this. The only downside to that is I can never really predict when they are going to happen. There I was driving up a mountain road in search of a handful of other plant species related to my research. The road was narrow and there was a steep bank on the drivers side. The Southern Appalachian Mountains are brimming with botanical diversity. As such, it can be hard to tease out individual plants, especially while driving. This is why having a refined search image comes in handy. 

I was rounding a bend in the road when something out my window caught my eye. My mind went racing and it wasn't long before a suspicion crept into my head. If I was right, this was an opportunity I was not going to miss. I found the nearest pull off, parked the truck, and ran back down the road. I am so happy that I decided to trust my instincts. There in front of me was a small population of whorled pogonia orchids (Isotria verticillata). 

It was like being in the presence of a celebrity that I had been stalking for years. This was an orchid I have been dying to see. The harder I looked the more I saw. I had to sit down. Here in front of me was a species of orchid that isn't seen by many. In fact, entire populations of these species can go unseen for decades until they have enough energy to flower. 

Flowering in this species is said to be quite erratic. Because they live in shaded environments, building up the energy needed to reproduce can be difficult. Like all orchids, the whorled pogonia relies on an obligate relationship with mycorrhizal fungi to supply the nutrients it needs. In return, the orchids provide fungi with carbohydrates. The problem with erratic flowering, however, is that it makes reproduction difficult. Rarely are two populations flowering at the same time and in close enough proximity for successful cross pollination. More often, these orchids will self fertilize, which can lead to high rates of inbreeding. 

Large bees are the main pollinators of the whorled pogonia. The flowers themselves are reported to produce a feint odor reminiscent of Vanilla. This is interesting to note because in the greater scheme of orchid phylogenetics, this species is placed in the Vanilla subfamily, although such distinctions can get muddled quickly. Regardless, simply being in the presence of this orchid was enough to give me goosebumps. It is a shame that such a species is being lost throughout much of its range. 

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