Environmental Intrigue on the Eastern Shore

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.

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.

Still, by the time Schwedler sent out a news release this month, the hybrid orchid's showy yellow flowers had withered and gone to seed. That made Fehrer happy at the time but now makes it close to impossible to find the orchid in this 25-acre swath of boggy greenery.

"I think it's somewhere over by this colicroot," said Wilson, trudging head down, his white knee socks pulled up over his khaki pants to prevent ticks and other insects from feasting on his legs.

The reason rare orchids and grasses are popping up all over this bog is fire. In May, the Nature Conservancy set the whole area ablaze. The controlled burn of what had once been a timber plantation of loblolly pines was designed to mimic the natural cycle of flood or fire that encroaching civilization has thrown out of kilter.

The burn created a wide, open, sunny habitat, bringing to life seeds that had been dormant in the soil for years.

Almost immediately after news of the find broke, Fehrer's phone started ringing. The orchid heads were on the hunt. They just wanted to see it, maybe take a picture, they pleaded. Please, could he just tell them the general area? Fehrer said he was busy, couldn't help them. He hung up.

A helicopter churned by overhead, low.

"Look! That could be an orchid hunter right now!" Wilson said.

"I'm not that paranoid," Fehrer replied.

What Fehrer at this moment does not know is that the orchid heads have already found this rare hybrid, blogging and obsessing about it for days on e-mail lists and in Internet chat rooms. They've even posted a photo that a local orchid head took on a surreptitious visit to the bog.

Paul Martin Brown, who has written books on some of the 268 species of orchids native to the United States, saw the picture online. "It was a beautiful individual," he said. "If I wanted to go see it and no one would tell me where it was, it wouldn't be that hard to figure out."

In the hierarchy of orchids, Canby's bog orchid isn't all that special. Not like the rarely seen ghost orchid or any number of the 35,000 tropical orchid species that can only live in one very specific place, growing in one particular fungus and sometimes pollinated by only one insect on Earth.

But the bog orchid's parents, the white-fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis) and the crested yellow orchid (Platanthera cristata), are both rare in Maryland. Each requires slightly different habitats. And each is pollinated by a different kind of moth. They are not rare in other states, such as Texas. What got orchid heads buzzing was that the hybrid was found in Maryland, where it hadn't been seen in decades.

"It's the rarity factor," said Scott Stewart, a professor of horticulture and a self-described orchid head. "When you find one, it's a little like stumbling across a diamond."

Like Fehrer and Wilson, orchid heads can be secretive about their finds. "The vast majority of us just want to see it," Stewart said. "Say they've seen it and check it off their 'life list' of orchids they want to view. But there is an extreme element. They want to dig it up and put it in their own personal collection, even if it's illegal. Just to have the satisfaction of knowing that they have it and no one else does fulfills something in their psyche."

The sky began to cloud over. Sweat broke through Wilson's gray T-shirt as he squatted close to the ground in search of the plant. Suddenly, he stopped.

"Oh my God!" He leaned down and peeked at two thin, unremarkable green stalks with a single slender leaf, no more than about eight inches high. A deer had most likely come along and chomped the flower and most of the rest of the rare Canby's bog orchid for lunch.

"If I found this today, I wouldn't know it's the hybrid," Wilson said, shaking his head. "I'd probably have to do DNA analysis."

Joe Fehrer leaned back on his heels and smiled. His secret was safe.

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