SUSSEX COUNTY, NJ – Biologists with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Natural Lands Management have confirmed a new occurrence of a globally rare orchid, the small whorled pogonia, within Sussex County’s Stokes State Forest.
Consisting of just a single plant found on stony ground in a forested area of Stokes, this is just the third occurrence of this rare orchid known to exist in the state. The other known occurrences are also in Sussex County.
The small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) is listed as endangered in New Jersey and as threatened by the federal government. It grows up to 10 inches tall and features a whorl of four to five leaves that encircle the stem. The orchid showcases one or a pair of grayish-green flowers that bloom in May and June.
“While small and inconspicuous, this plant’s presence indicates a healthy and thriving forest ecosystem,” said New Jersey Parks and Forestry Director Olivia Glenn. “I’m thrilled that biologists discovered this elusive orchid in a state park where we can monitor, manage and protect this rare find.”
Historically, the small whorled pogonia’s range comprised 21 eastern states and parts of Canada. However, the orchid has never been a common species and typically grows in small populations. It prefers drier upland sites, usually in mixed deciduous forests.
Martin Rapp, a biologist with the DEP’s Office of Natural Lands Management, found the new population on June 6 while surveying potential sites that could support small whorled pogonia.
The small whorled pogonia does not appear above ground every year and may remain dormant underground for years. Because the orchids emerge inconsistently, biologists carefully monitor the known occurrences annually. They revisit sites where the orchid once grew to attempt to confirm its presence.
“Small whorled pogonia previously occurred in Bergen, Hunterdon, Passaic and Sussex counties, but the orchid has not appeared on many of these sites in decades,” said Bob Cartica,
Administrator of the Office of Natural Lands Management. “That’s one of the mysteries of this orchid – suitable habitat exists throughout its range, but populations of small whorled pogonia are rare.”
Research indicates that small whorled pogonia, like many other orchids, depend on soil organisms to thrive, especially fungi. In the case of this species, fungi not only provide nutrients for the orchid but they also help break the dormancy cycle prompting the orchid to emerge from the soil.
In addition to the surveys for previously known populations, biologists will survey Stokes and other state properties for new populations of small whorled pogonia. Because the orchid is listed as a federally threatened species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides matching funding to conduct the surveys.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identifies human impact, including collection and habitat destruction, as the primary threat to small whorled pogonia and other orchid populations. The most effective strategy in ensuring the continued existence of small whorled pogonia is to maintain the integrity of the forest that supports it.
The Office of Natural Lands Management includes the Natural Heritage Program, the Natural Areas Program and the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust. The office works to identify and track endangered and rare plant populations as well as rare and unique ecological communities. The office also manages public open space acquired by the Natural Lands Trust and designated State Natural Areas.
Located in the extreme northwestern corner of the state, the nearly 16,500-acre Stokes State Forest encompasses a portion of Kittatinny Mountain and straddles the Appalachian Trail, north of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.