SAN FRANCISCO | A foul-smelling orchid that flourishes only in Yosemite National Park and was first collected in 1923 is a distinct species, scientists have announced after re-evaluating the flower.
Alison Colwell, a botanist, said that the species’ minute, tennis-ball-yellow flowers were not what first led her to it, but rather the smell of sweaty feet that the Yosemite bog- orchid emits to attract pollinators.
“I was out surveying clovers one afternoon, and I started smelling something. I was like, ‘Eew, what’s that?’ ” said Colwell, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey in El Portal, Calif. “It smelled like a horse corral on a hot afternoon.”
The plant, the only known orchid species endemic to California’s Sierra Nevada range, grows in spring-fed areas between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, Colwell said.
All nine sites where the orchid has been spotted are in the park, some adjacent to areas popular among visitors, according to an article published in Madroño, a journal of the California Botanical Society.
The species is not likely to have any commercial value, because its flowers are less than a quarter-inch wide. But some orchid lovers were so enthused by the news that they began planning cross-country trips to see its delicate summer blooms.
“This orchid might not be showy enough to get the masses lined up all the way from San Francisco to see it, but I’m leaving Sunday to go out there to photograph it,” said wild-orchid expert Paul Martin Brown, who planned to leave Acton, Maine, this weekend to include the orchid in his latest book.
Colwell said the bog-orchid is thought to have persisted in the upland meadows south of Yosemite Valley, which nourished unique plant species because the area never froze under glacial cover.
At least seven other rare plant species have been found there, including the Yosemite onion, Yosemite woolly sunflower and Bolander’s clover.
Park officials would not release details about where the plant was found, because they were concerned that visitors might love it to death.
“It’s a rare and precious resource that we want to protect,” said ranger Adrienne Freeman.
George Henry Grinnell, a botanist, collected the first Yosemite bog-orchid in 1923 and sent the dried, pressed flower to an herbarium that later gave its collections to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.