In Vermont, a Glimpse of a Plant Last Seen a Century Ago


For those who rarely search for anything beyond a misplaced set of keys or a cellphone, the life of a botanist might look impossibly poetic: combing through fields of wildflowers or perusing mossy riverbanks in search of elusive plants with names like handsome sedge and rough false pennyroyal.

The whimsical image fit when the state of Vermont announced last month that a plant thought to be locally extinct — false mermaid-weed — had been found through a chain of events that seemed stolen from a fairy tale.

It began with a sharp-eyed turtle biologist for the state, Molly Parren. She had been out surveying the habitat of wood turtles in rural Addison County on May 7 when she spotted some wild meadow garlic, which is extremely rare, beside a stream. Ms. Parren snapped a photo and sent it to her colleague, Grace Glynn, Vermont’s state botanist.

But when Ms. Glynn opened the photo, another plant, visible in the foreground, seized her attention. She knew at once what it was: Floerkea proserpinacoides, or false mermaid-weed, an herb that had not been documented in Vermont for more than a century, and one that Ms. Glynn had sought in vain for years.

She called Ms. Parren right away. “You won’t believe what you just found!” she told her. Then Ms. Glynn called her friend Matt Charpentier, a field botanist in Massachusetts who had helped her look for false-mermaid weed in Vermont in recent years while pursuing a similar search in Massachusetts.

“She said ‘Are you sitting down?’ and immediately I knew she’d found Floerkea,” he said of the phone call. “It was the right time of year.”

(An “excitable person” by his own admission, Mr. Charpentier said he once became so fired up after hearing that an endangered plant had been located — American chaffseed, rediscovered on Cape Cod in 2018 — that he backed into another car in a parking lot.)

“There was a lot of screaming,” Ms. Glynn acknowledged of her own reaction when she noticed the Floerkea in the photo.

Unassuming and easily overlooked, false mermaid-weed appears in late April, flowers for about a month and retreats by early June. Its delicate features, including flowers just a centimeter wide, make it hard to see and identify.

Its name refers to its superficial resemblance to marsh mermaid-weed, an aquatic plant that can adapt to live on muddy shorelines.

The day after the false mermaid-weed was spotted, Ms. Glynn rushed to the rural site to confirm its presence in person. She found a dense carpet — “so many plants, it was hard to imagine how they had been overlooked,” she said.

And yet her disbelief was familiar. “It happens a lot, people saying, ‘We couldn’t have missed that,’” she said. “But we do, and we’re humbled over and over — I love that.”

Far from an anomaly, rediscoveries of plants thought to be extinct are a relatively regular feature of field botany. The bulk of a botanist’s work is looking for and documenting rare and endangered plants, and using that knowledge to try to protect them, said Ms. Glynn, who acquired her expertise in the field naturalist program at the University of Vermont.

Lacking a staff to deploy, she also relies on field reports from far-flung botany enthusiasts who, like Ms. Parren, send in their own sightings.

Combing through the state’s forests, bogs and meadows, Ms. Glynn keeps dozens of lost-but-not-forgotten species in mind, drawn from a state list of some 600 such plants that is updated every few years. Each bears a rarity rating, from S3 and S2 (somewhat rare) to S1 (extremely rare) and SH. The H stands for historical, meaning that the plant was once found in Vermont but that it has not been seen in decades and may be gone.

Botanists convene at regular meetings to ponder the status of each species.

“It’s like, ‘Next up, red-root flatsedge — what do you think? Are you seeing it?’” Ms. Glynn said. “Some rare plants are doing well, expanding, so there is down-ranking — moving them from S1 to S2, for example.”

Among those doing well is Crepidomanes intricatum, or weft fern, a “weird” specimen that lives in caves and looks like “a fluff, or a little Brillo pad,” she said. Once ranked S1, it has moved to S3 and may drop off the list altogether, a milestone that can elicit mixed emotions.

“It’s a little like sending your child off to college,” Ms. Glynn said. “You’re happy because you want them to be independent, but it’s also a little sad.”

Tricky as it is to find elusive species, it is harder to pinpoint why they thrive or dwindle, and how such shifts might be related to a changing climate. Flooding is cited as one possible factor in the disappearance of false mermaid-weed from Vermont. And yet flooding in the state last summer may have helped it flourish by the stream where it was found, Ms. Glynn said, by depositing sediment and creating a more hospitable habitat.

To help preserve the species, she will send some Floerkea seeds to a seed bank in Massachusetts that houses more than 230,000 seeds of rare plants native to New England as a backup for an uncertain future.

She has also updated the status of the plant, scrolling through a drop-down menu on her computer screen and clicking once to switch Floerkea’s rating from SH — a plant once known, but lost — to S1, extremely rare, but undeniably present.

“It’s a glimmer of hope,” Mr. Charpentier said of such occasions, “in an otherwise grim world.”

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