This story originally Aired on September 8, 2017
If you live in West Virginia, chances are, you’ve driven past a cluster of wild pink or white orchids just off the side of a curvy road. Some of the best opportunities in the country to find them are located along rural mountain hillsides.
A few years ago, two orchid enthusiasts discovered a rare and previously undiscovered species, known as Platanthera shriveri, or Shriver’s Purple Frilly Orchid.
LISTEN: “On the Hunt for Wild Orchids”
I was sworn to secrecy not to reveal the location of our hike before Scott Shriver and Clete Smith agreed to take me to see one of the rare orchids they discovered. After all, poachers have been known to dig them up. Let’s just say we took a little walk along a road to a steep hillside, in the misty mountains of Pocahontas County.
Shriver is a retired high school biology teacher from Pittsburgh, who helped discover the Purple Frilly Orchid, and named it after his dad.
“He was my best friend for 30 years,” Shriver says. “I wanted to honor him so I asked if we could name it after him. He died in 2008, we published in 2008, so it was a kind of a tribute to him.”
A report about the new species was published in the North American Native Orchid Journal. But aside from a few orchid fans and scientists, few people heard about the discovery.
“As a teacher, kids would say, ‘How much money did you get? How famous are you?'” Shriver recalled. “There’s no money, there’s no fame,” he told his students.
The ground is spongy and mossy under our feet as we make our way down a hillside covered in green ferns and tall grass. Scott and Smith are on the hunt for the orchid they discovered.
Then, we spot them. Each of the plants have lots of little purple flowers, each shaped like an orchid, with a kind of a funny hat on top, and a frilly, ornamental skirt at its base.
And then, laughing with giddiness, Smith points out a hybrid plant they didn’t expect to find. I peer close to see a green orchid, right next to a very rare, hybrid version. Basically, Shriver explains, they think the green orchid crossed with the Purple Frilly they discovered to make a sort of orchid love child that has this cool green and purple color combination.
For these two orchid fans, this is like Christmas in July.
“It’s a treasure hunt. There’s no doubt, it’s treasure,” says Shriver.
Shriver and Smith are part of an informal group of orchid hobbyists who scour the country looking for these wild flowers.
“We just fell in love with orchids, and we hunted them from Alaska to Newfoundland. I mean North American orchids were our hobby. Some people play golf, we did North American orchids. So we were just orchid crazy,” says Shriver.
Wild West Virginian Orchid Hunting Grounds
West Virginia has a really good climate and geography for orchids, making it a secret hotbed for finding a lot of different types of flowers. So Smith and Shriver began making regular trips to visit. They even made a goal to try to see an orchid in every county in the state. And they did.
“I know there’s been a lot of cutting of forests, there’s been a lot of coal mining, there’s been a lot of damage that has occurred here, but there are a lot of little nooks and crannies that still exist here that are still pristine,” Shriver says.
Shriver said some of the best places to see orchids are in the Monongahela National Forest — 300,000 acres of which are located in Pocahontas County. “And so we were drawn to Pocahontas County, which is the pinnacle of orchids because you can see 18 species of orchids in one day, in bloom!”
Orchids even grow in places where you may not think to see them. Some orchids like those pristine niches, other orchids like disturbed area.
“Old strip mines are one of our favorite places to go orchid hunting,” said Shriver. “Not a strip mine that ended two years ago, but one that ended 30 years ago and is recovering by succession. Orchids are going to move into those areas.”
“So West Virginia’s just a great place,” Shriver adds. “Pennsylvania’s good, West Virginia’s probably better. And so we spend a lot of time here.”
Neither Shriver nor Smith are professional botanists, but they insist that anyone with an interest in exploring the outdoors can make big discoveries, especially in remote Appalachia.
“I think there are things in the nooks and crannies of West Virginia that nobody has ever seen before and that’s exciting,” says Shriver. When you’re here, it’s kind of like you’ve escaped urban and suburban areas and a lot of places in West Virginia. It’s wild.”
But this abundantly diverse wildness is fragile. Deer are a threat to orchids, and there are poachers who steal them to grow in greenhouses or to plant in their backyards.
Recently, an endangered orchid that grows on Cheat Mountain in West Virginia was nearly wiped out by poachers. So I assure Shriver and Smith, their secret is safe with me. If you want to find an orchid, you’ll have to go driving out to the mountains yourself.
Keep your eyes peeled though, because you never know what you’ll find on the back roads of West Virginia.
Photo (top): Matt Dean / Flickr