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During a recent expedition deep into the thickets and brambles of an undisclosed area in Bristol County, Bob Wernerehl saw something that left him breathless.
Wernerehl, state botanist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, recently rediscovered a small population of the crested fringed orchid, a delicate plant with ornate orange flowers that hasn’t been seen in the state in almost two decades — even though professional “Green Thumbs” have searched strenuously for it.
“I just went, [audible gasp], like that, because I was so excited and so thrilled to actually find it,” Wernerehl said. “I mean I literally — you could have heard me if you were next to me.”
Wernerehl had never searched for this species of flower, endangered in the state, before in his career with MassWildlife. But during a planning meeting back in January with other officials, the crested fringed orchid was added to his list of plants to survey while out conducting field research.
When August rolled around — prime time for the orchid and its octopus-like tentacles that reach out from the blooms — Wernerehl made the trek to a wetlands region where the plant had been historically documented but remained elusive. (The state doesn’t disclose where such endangered plants are found, partly for fear of poaching.)
Wernerehl said during his search for the plant, which can be found from Southeastern Massachusetts down to Tennessee, central Florida, and Arkansas, he had to force his way through shrubs and thickets overrun by poison ivy.
“There are some sections that are so thick, you could not do it without some sort of brush-clipping equipment,” he said. “But this was one [area] where I could barely push my way through, and I saw the area I wanted to head to and I was just pushing through.”
After some time, he glanced down. And there, shrouded by greenery, was a bright orange spot that seemed to pop out from the tangled mess of branches around it.
“I saw one at first and I got down on my knees to photograph it. As I did that I could see another one a little ways ahead,” he said. “Then when I was done photographing the first one, I moved over to photograph the second one and I could see another one a little further ahead.”
Then he stood up and found more. And more. And more. In all, Wernerehl was graced by the presence of eight of the rare plants, he said.
“I went out to get it, and I just got lucky,” he said. “It’s a combination of hard work, planning, preparation, a strong skill-set in field botany — but it’s also definitely a matter of luck.”
According to a statement from MassWildlife, before crossing paths with this batch of wild flowers there had been only four documented records of the species on that particular site: in 1905, 1908, 1987, and again in 2001. Each time, only one or two plants had been found, officials said, making Wernerehl’s expedition all the more exhilarating.
“This is currently the northernmost known crested fringed orchid population in the United States and the only population known in New England,” according to MassWildlife. “The next closest population is located on Long Island, N.Y., where it is a also a state-endangered species.”
This was the second remarkable discovery Wernerehl had been involved with in recent years. In 2018, Rhode Island botanist Doug McGrady located a patch of federally endangered American chaffseed on Cape Cod, and Wernerehl shared the news.
This time, however, the oh-my-gosh moment belonged to Wernerehl.
“It’s a eureka kind of a moment for a botanist,” he said. “It still absolutely floors me to find a species like this. It never gets old.”