Slender as a reed with dainty yellow flowers, the plant was first spied in Yosemite back in 1923. It then seemingly vanished, as its habitat wasn't rediscovered until 1993. However, it wasn't until just recently that botanists knew exactly what they had.
Two U.S.G.S. botanists, along with a colleague from the New York State Museum, named the plant the Yosemite bog-orchid (Platanthera yosemitensis), and declared it a new species to the botanical world.
"The Yosemite bog-orchid is an example of how both historic and contemporary plant specimens can serve to inform scientists and managers about the biological diversity of natural reserves,” says Peggy Moore, a USGS plant ecologist in El Portal, Calif., and one of the botanists who identified the orchid.
Ms. Moore and fellow USGS botanist Alison Moore began their research into the orchid in 2003 when they noticed mention in the plant guide Flora of North America of a southern Rockies bog-orchid that also was reported in Yosemite.
Building on the efforts of previous botanists involved in the search for this mysterious orchid, the two relocated the site where others had collected the orchid, mapped additional sites where they discovered it growing, and searched several plant collections to examine bog-orchid specimens. Then, in consultation with Dr. Charles Sheviak, Curator of Botany at the New York State Museum, they determined the orchid was a new species.
“This group of orchids constitutes a notoriously complex problem, and it’s only now after nearly 2 centuries of study that we are beginning to understand what the species are,” said Dr. Sheviak, an authority on the group. “I’ve been studying it for 40 years and have described other new species of Platanthera, so I’m used to being surprised. However, to find such a strikingly distinctive plant in such a well-known locality is truly astonishing. The fact that it appears to be confined to such a small geographic area is furthermore unique among related species.”
So far the Yosemite bog-orchid has been found in just nine sites within the park, and all are on the granitic upland south of Yosemite Valley, between the main stem and the South Fork of the Merced River. As the orchid’s range is understood currently, it is the only orchid species endemic to the Sierra Nevada of California.
"The extreme small size of several of the populations puts them at risk of extirpation,” said Dr. Niki Nicholas, chief of resources management and science at Yosemite. “Sensitive habitat as well as a delicate root system highlights conservation issues associated with this species.”
Taxonomists use several technical features to help distinguish Yosemite bog-orchid from other bog-orchids, including what a discerning nose might call its bouquet. Yosemite bog-orchids have a strong musk component that, according to the authors, has been likened by various observers to a “corral of horses, Asafetida, strong cheese, human feet, sweaty clothing, or simply disagreeable.” The Yosemite bog-orchid may use this scent to attract mosquitoes or flies for pollination purposes.