Rare ‘Absolutely Tiny’ Plant, Not Seen for More Than a Century, Found in Vermont

The last time a botanist recorded a sighting of false mermaid-weed in the state was in 1916

Close-up shot of a person's fingers holding a small green plant
False mermaid-weed is small and only emerges for a short window every spring. Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife

Vermont state botanist Grace Glynn has been searching for false mermaid-weed for years, but the spring-blooming herb with dainty flowers has always eluded her—and everyone else. No one had documented false mermaid-weed in Vermont since 1916.

But that all changed last month, when Glynn opened a photo she’d been sent by a colleague. In the image snapped on May 7 by a state biologist surveying turtle habitat, she caught a glimpse of the elusive flower in the corner of the frame.

“I sort of did a double take and rubbed my eyes and couldn’t believe that I was seeing this plant,” Glynn tells WCAX.

When she visited the site in the state’s rural Addison County to investigate, she found hundreds of false mermaid-weed sprigs on both public and private land—the first confirmed sightings in Vermont in more than a century.

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife called the discovery “BOTANICAL BREAKING NEWS,” in a Facebook post announcing the find.

It’s not surprising that false mermaid-weed (Floerkea proserpinacoides) had gone undetected for so long. Each individual plant is “absolutely tiny” with flowers that are “as small as the head of a pin,” per the department. Even when trained experts are out searching for the plant, it’s hard to spot and can be easily overlooked.

What’s more, it only emerges for a short window of time—typically from late April to early June. This is what botanists refer to as an “ephemeral” plant.

Botanists also suspect false mermaid-weed populations have suffered because of extreme flooding, invasive species and human development. Its rediscovery is “a sign that good stewardship by landowners and conservation organizations really can make a difference,” according to the Facebook post.

“It’s a glimmer of hope … in an otherwise grim world,” says Matt Charpentier, a field botanist in Massachusetts, to the New York Times’ Jenna Russell.

Woman wearing a ballcap kneeling among tall green plants with a notebook in her lap
Grace Glynn, Vermont's state botanist, had long been searching for false mermaid-weed. Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife

The last botanist to document false mermaid-weed in Vermont was a woman named Nellie Flynn, who collected 22,700 plants from around the world during her lifetime. So, amid all the excitement of finding a long-lost plant, Glynn also found herself reflecting on the past.

“It was just amazing to touch this plant and to think, ‘Oh, Nellie Flynn was probably the last person to ever touch this species in Vermont back in 1916,’” Glynn tells Vermont Public Radio’s Zoe McDonald. “And I always think about how there are just these threads through history that kind of tie you to other botanists, and it just adds depth and richness, I think, to an already rich story.”

In Vermont, the plant’s state rank has now been updated from possibly extinct and missing to very rare and critically imperiled. Glynn also plans to send some of the plant’s seeds to a seed bank in Massachusetts that preserves native New England species.

But even though false mermaid-weed has been rediscovered, the work of Vermont botanists is far from finished: They still have another 600 or so rare and uncommon native plants to search for and, ideally, conserve throughout the state.

This is not the first time an unusual plant has made an appearance in Vermont: In May 2022, a citizen scientist discovered nine specimens of a federally threatened orchid, known as the small whorled pogonia, in Chittenden County. It was the first time anyone had seen the plant since 1902, VTDigger’s Ella Ruehsen wrote at the time.

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