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Saving Texas Wildlife: Searching for a Rare Orchid in The Big Thicket

Here at the Houston Zoo, we are dedicated to saving wildlife both in Texas and around the globe. Back in August, the Zoo embarked on a wildlife saving journey, trekking through the woods of the Big Thicket in East Texas in search of an endangered species that might just surprise you – the adorable Chapman’s fringed orchid! This little Texas native orchid is not only rare and beautiful, but only blooms for around 10 days during the beginning of August making it extremely difficult to spot in the wild. This journey to uncover the hiding places of this elusive beauty began just outside of Warren, Texas where we partnered with a team of researchers from Atlanta Botanical Garden, Jacksonville Zoo, and Texas Tech University joined forces before venturing into the field. This team, along with a local expert on Texas orchids have been conducting research on this species for several years.  Read on to see how we found a new location where the orchid had never been found before.

We started by walking through Watson Rare Plant Reserve in order to check on the health and population size of a known colony of orchids. The Chapman’s fringed orchid is somewhat small and delicate, in a color that can be hard to spot; this was a great opportunity for me to see the orchid in person, so I knew what to look for over the next few days!

Our next stop was not as successful – we only found two tiny little orchids that were struggling to survive in all the underbrush that had grown in and around their habitat.  This made it very obvious that brush management will be very important.  In years past, there had been more orchids at this site, but the area hadn’t been cleared of invasive species in a while, making it difficult for the orchids to reemerge. We won’t know if more orchids have survived until the brush has been managed and the area has opened up, giving the orchids room to grow.

The days that followed were long and hot, filled with a mixture of successful sightings and visits to sites where we couldn’t spot a single orchid. Exploring multiple sites and coming up empty handed can be frustrating, but I did manage to spot a few orchids on my own in a location where there hadn’t been any recorded sightings which was quite exciting!

All in all, it was a very successful trip.  We found a new location where the orchid had never been found before, discovered a couple of sites were controlled burns had been used allowing the orchid population to increase, and we identified many sites where there was potential for future orchid planting.  As a horticulturist, few things could be more fun than spending time in the field learning about this beautiful little Texas orchid…even if I did get a lot of chigger bites for my efforts!