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Orchid Heads Scramble Over Rare Flower in Nassawango Nature Preserve

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Joe Fehrer, manager of Nassawango Nature Preserve on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has set the rules: No photos of the horizon or any landscape feature that might identify this place. No naming the back road that leads here.

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The obsessive cone of silence around this precise location has nothing to do with nuclear codes or terrorist cells. The mission here is to protect a flower. An orchid. Arguably the one flower on Earth known to drive mere mortals nearly mad with desire, sending them deep into mosquito-infested bogs like this one, in search of ever rarer, more exotic, mysterious and wild species.

Fehrer's job is to stay one step ahead of the orchid thief.

The flower Fehrer is defending is Platanthera x canbyi, or Canby's bog orchid, a rare hybrid born of two rare parent orchids. This flower hasn't been seen in Maryland in almost 20 years. Fehrer would much rather that the rest of the world take it on faith that this fragile and rare orchid has reappeared on the Eastern Shore. To believe without seeing. He is taking a reporter to see the orchid only reluctantly, he says, running the risk that the crazy "orchid heads" will sneak out here, trample the delicate habitat or, worse, haul out a garden trowel, dig up the precious hybrid and steal it away to become a prized possession in some private collection rather than the start of a fledgling colony in the wild.

"They come here and search out rare orchids for their own gratification and remove them," he said. "Which makes them all the more rare. We need to be careful. Some of these folks are real sleuths."

Just past a clump of huckleberry bushes ripe with purple berries, Ron Wilson, a former high school science teacher-turned-professional botanist, held his bright yellow global positioning device close to his face, the better to read the plot points he recorded a few weeks ago when he discovered the hybrid.

"We're lost?" Fehrer asked.

"It's just I've got so many different overlapping plants," Wilson said. "I'm having trouble reading them all." He paused. "God, I might be stepping on it."

Fehrer jumped onto a tree stump.

Despite cajoling by the preserve's owner, the Nature Conservancy, Fehrer remained so conflicted about publicly announcing Wilson's find that the orchid went in and out of flower while he tried to make up his mind. Fehrer sent a few blunt e-mails of objection. Went on vacation. Thought it over. Finally, he relented, on condition that the exact location be kept secret.

"We had an ongoing discussion with a lot of back-and-forths," said Jon Schwedler, the conservancy's press person in Bethesda. "Everyone invoked the character out of the movie, 'Adaptation,' the orchid thief." (The 2002 movie, based on the book "The Orchid Thief," told the story of one man's obsession with finding the elusive ghost orchid.)

But in an era when urbanized and video-game-addled children suffer "nature deficit disorder" and winning public support for preserving wild lands is a challenge, news of a mysterious rare orchid, like a photo of a majestic bald eagle or a cuddly endangered polar cub, can be a big boost for conservationists.


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