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Rare Hybrid Orchid Discovered on Eastern Shore

Orchid growth is response to record prescribed burns

SNOW HILL, MD | August 10, 2009

An extremely rare hybrid orchid, Platanthera x canbyi, was discovered recently at Nassawango Creek Preserve on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Worcester County. The hybrid orchid is a combination of the white-fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis) and the crested yellow orchid (Platanthera cristata), which are both state-rare plants themselves.

Last weekthree individual hybrid orchids were found in bloom at Nassawango Creek. Fewer than a dozen individual plants have been recorded within the state in the past 70 years.

“We are thrilled with this discovery at our Nassawango Creek Preserve,” said Nat Williams, director of The Nature Conservancyin Maryland/DC. At 10,000 acres, Nassawango Creek Preserve isMaryland's largest private nature preserve, which combined with state lands forms a 30-square-mile protected conservation area on the Eastern Shore. It is home to 90 state-rare and endangered plants and animals.

The hybrid orchid was discovered last week in a part of Nassawango that had been treated with prescribed fire as part of an effort to promote the growth of native plants. This summer The Nature Conservancy fire-treated a record 240 acres on their Maryland preserves, more than a ten-fold increase from previous years.

“The appearance of this rare hybrid orchid tells us the restoration work we are doing with prescribed fire and other methods is producing results,” said Williams.

The hybrid orchid was discovered by Ron Wilson, a local botanist who had been hired by The Nature Conservancy to do a biological survey of the burn-treated sites.

“I saw two large groupings of crested yellow and white-fringed orchids,” said Wilson. “When I came up to the hybrid orchid I suspected we could have something very special.”

Wilson was familiar with the hybrid orchid, as he, along with fellow botanist Frank Hirst, found three plants at another site in Maryland 18 years ago.

After sighting the hybrid orchid, Ron Wilson contacted biologist Wes Knapp of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, who dropped everything to confirm the appearance of the hybrid orchid first-hand.

“I had never seen this flower before,” said Knapp. “I’m excited to be one of the few people in Maryland who have seen this plant.”

Orchids are a family of flowering plants usually associated with more tropical climates. Their showy flowers, along with the rarity of some orchid species, make them a favorite among hobby botanists. An overzealous orchid hobbyist was characterized in the movie Adaptation.

Funding for fire treatment at Nassawango Creek came from the Landowner Incentive Program, a competitive grant program that establishes partnerships between federal and state governments and private landowners.

“At Nassawango, we’re gradually converting several thousand acres of loblolly pine plantations to mixed native hardwood forest,” said Deborah Landau, conservation biologist for The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC. “Fire gives native plants a head start — we’re jumpstarting restoration.”

One particularly wet 30-acre burn plot at Nassawango has already been replanted with Atlantic white cedar seedlings provided by the National Aquariumin Baltimore. Once abundant along the East Coast, these wetland evergreens have declined dramatically due to habitat loss.

Besides the hybrid orchid, several other rare plant species were found on the fire-treated portions of Nassawango Creek Preserve. Scleria triglomerata, Scleria pauciflora, Carex venusta, and Rhynchospora torreyana, four rare sedge species, were also discovered.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

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