The white fringeless orchid grows in a handful of places in the Southeast. Only about 100 of the rare flowers bloom in Georgia in any given year. Now the plant is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The flowers, also known as monkeyface orchids, are threatened by habitat loss, and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by collectors. The plant is now listed as “threatened.”
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources already protects the plant. The agency is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to save the remaining wild populations, and to raise white fringeless orchids in a lab.
Last year, WABE visited a couple sites where the orchids live with Matt Richards, from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and biologists with the Georgia DNR.
Trips to find the plants in the wild ─ with or without flowers ─ can be total busts, said Richards. Georgia botanists have used old historical records, and even a Civil War diary, to figure out where to find white fringeless orchids. That means, sometimes, Richards said he’ll find himself wandering around, muttering, “Well this used to be here in 1947, don’t know what happened.”
But it’s not really that hard to imagine what could have happened to a rare and picky wildflower in the past century.
“It’s become rare because habitats are being overgrown,” said Tom Patrick, the senior botanist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Because wetlands are being drained, because invasives are taking over the wetlands. And because the habitats are just very fragmented.”
The goal with the federal listing is to eventually restore enough of the population so that the plant can come back off the endangered species list.