Raiders of the Lost Flower. Can you help locate the elusive Three Birds Orchid?

People message me every day with local history questions or tips on places to explore. So at first glance, Kerry Givens’ July 29th email wasn’t unusual. He had some questions about the building of the Enola Low Grade and Columbia and Port Deposit Railroads in the areas of Shenks Ferry as well and when its ferry service ended.

1912 map of Shenks Ferry and surrounding area.

What was unique was his reason for wanting the answers. Givens was in search of a “tiny, very rare wildflower” known as the Three Birds Orchid “that once grew in that vicinity.” Givens had two goals:

  1. By digging into the historical record of Shenks Ferry determine where the Three Birds Orchid once grew.
  2. Try to figure out what happened to the plant after it was discovered.

In August of 1867, a Lancaster botanist named Elias Diffenbaugh was exploring the vicinity of the Safe Harbor for interesting plants. Luck was with him that August day when he stumbled onto a colony of an exceedingly rare wild orchid known colloquially as either the Nodding Pogonia or the Three Birds Orchid, current scientific name Triphora trianthophoros (in 1867, the scientific name was Pogonia pendula).

Photo © Kerry T. Givens.

This flower has always been a great rarity in Pennsylvania, as well as in most other states where it has been found. Currently, there are only two known locations for it in Pennsylvania, and from 1987 to 2012, there were no known locations. It was actually believed to be extinct in the commonwealth for a time. 

Exceedingly rare plants are a sort of catnip for botanists, who can’t resist digging up their trophy, pressing and drying it, mounting it on a large sheet of paper, and then saving it in a large collection of flattened plants known as a herbarium.

In Diffenbaugh’s time, it was commonplace for botanists to trade some of their mounted specimens with other herbariums, much as kids used to trade baseball cards back in the day. Diffenbaugh ended up trading or giving most of his collected specimens of the Three Birds Orchid from the Shenks Ferry area to his mentor, another well-known Pennsylvania botanist, Thomas Porter.

Here is one of the specimens that Diffenbaugh prepared from his great find on August 25, 1867. Note that this particular specimen describes the location as “Woods of the Susquehanna” and further says “below Safe Harbor.”

Diffenbaugh’s mounted specimen of the elusive Three Birds Orchid.

One or two of his other specimens mention Shenks Ferry. Givens believes that the plants were found somewhere between the Safe Harbor Dam and the Shenks Ferry landing sites. But where exactly? Closer to the ferry dock or nearer to the dam? Diffenbaugh left us no other clues, unfortunately.

Diffenbaugh collected about 20 plants total from this site. However, Givens can find no further documentation from him or any other botanist that anyone ever again encountered this particular colony of the Three Birds orchid. Perhaps Diffenbaugh, in his excitement to share his find with other herbaria, collected a few too many plants and basically wiped out the colony unintentionally. 

Or, perhaps the installation of one or both railroads so scoured the riverside woodlands that the original habitat was destroyed.

The three birds orchid (Triphora trianthophora) 📷: Jim Fowler.

Diffenbaugh himself passed away in 1870, just a few short years after he found the orchids. If he ever revisited the Three Birds orchid colony following its initial discovery, Givens can find no record of that.

Givens’ primary bucket list goal is to locate a colony of this orchid somewhere in Pennsylvania. In fact, he’s been pursuing this orchid for several years now. Givens began his search by re-exploring areas where the orchid used to grow. He has thoroughly examined what little habitat remains between Shanks Ferry and Safe Harbor several Augusts in a row with no luck.

But hope springs eternal, and so Givens will search the area again this month when the tiny flowers typically bloom.

Triphora Trianthophoros

It is hard to see from this angle, but this specimen has three flower buds—the “three birds”—but only two of them chose to open in Givens photo below. That little green guy is a Halictid bee, a frequent pollinator of this orchid. The whole plant is only about 5-6” tall.

Photo © Kerry T. Givens.

Besides the plant’s small stature, it has two other features that make it incredibly difficult to observe.

First, in any given colony of this orchid, all the plants typically bloom for just one day—and the whole colony tends to bloom simultaneously. So if you miss that one day, the plants become much harder to spot once their flowers wither.

The other big challenge? This species is well-documented to periodically undergo a sort of dormancy. When this happens, the plants remain living as an underground tubers but do not send up any above-ground parts or flowers. These dormancy periods can sometimes last for years, making it seem that the species has completely disappeared from an area where it once grew. This species’ dormancy record is an incredible 125 years, involving a well-known historic colony in South Carolina. So for all Givens knows, he may have walked right by a dormant colony of this plant on his travels and never knew it was there.

Givens took the above photo just last week (the first week of August 2021). However, it was not taken in Lancaster County.  Colonies of the plant exist in several other mid-Atlantic states, including Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and elsewhere over the surprisingly large range of this orchid. Although the species is found in quite a few states, the plant is also very rare—similar to our situation here in Pennsylvania. As part of Givens’ research on this species, he has corresponded with many botanists in other states to seek advice on finding the orchid locally.

One or two of these trusting good Samaritans have generously provided Givens with directions to colonies of the plant in their localities. However, this year Givens is determined to see this plant blooming in its native condition somewhere.

Givens’ goal is to develop a “search image” for the plant’s favored habitat. He figures if he can learn to recognize its preferred habitat, the more likely he is to find the plant.

Last week, Givens drove a considerable distance to study and photograph the colony and was fortunate enough to catch it in bloom. But his bucket list goal remains unfulfilled until he can find this species in Pennsylvania, preferably in Lancaster County.

Can you help?

If you happen to see a Three Birds Orchid while hiking the river hills of the Lower Susquehanna, especially in the vicinity of Safe Harbor/Shenks ferry, take a photo and let Kerry Givens know.


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