Rare Orchids Bloom In Wake of Iron Mine

May 7th, 2016 by

There is a common saying about how “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.” Apparently, plant ecosystems follow a similar principle sometimes! In this case, one environment’s mining tailings (waste) are another ecosystem’s secret ingredient.

At the site of a former iron mine in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, millions of orchids are flourishing to scientist’s delighted surprise.

Threatened Species

Research into this explosion of rare orchid species by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry suggests that “former industrial sites—typically regarded as blighted landscapes—have untapped value in ecological restoration efforts.”

Source: Donald J. Leopold/ESF

Surprisingly enough, the mine tailings from the long-shuttered Benson Mines in the northwestern Adirondacks developed into a wetland of sorts. This made for rather fertile ground for a host of orchid species that aren’t found in significant numbers anywhere else. More than a half-dozen native orchid species have blossomed here, with populations numbering in the millions for some species. These are the highest concentrations of these wildflowers found anywhere in the state.

Moreover, officially threatened species like the pink wintergreen orchid (also known as pink shinleaf) that are scarce elsewhere in New York have actually thrived at the former iron mine. Orchids are usually found in tropical climates, but there are quite a few species (60 distinct ones in total) found in New York. Unfortunately, these orchids are rare and often considered endangered plant species.

Growing From the Ashes

The Benson Mine first yielded iron ore as far back as 1810 and later boasted the country’s largest open-pit iron mine. In fact, during the 1950s, it was the largest open-pit magnetite mine in the world. At its peak between the 1940s and 1970s, the mine was incredibly productive, with more than a million metric tonnes of average iron output annually. In 1978, the mine closed.

orchidThe extensive industrial past of the site unexpectedly seems to have contributed to conditions—such as water pH levels and widespread fungi growth—that have encouraged the wildflowers to come out in full bloom. In essence, the “extraordinary” presence and numbers of grass pink, rose pogonia and hooded ladies’ tresses found in the area owe their existence to the Benson Mine. In addition, there’s a thriving community of blueberries and cranberries found nearby, as well.

This incredible story goes to show that sometimes the remnants of industrial operations actually benefit the local ecology. In a way, it’s an inverse of the theme in Dr. Seuss’s popular tale The Lorax. The fantastic growth of orchards now makes the abandoned industrial site a prime candidate for state protection as part of conservation efforts. Dr. Thomas Horton of the Environmental Science and Forestry department noted, “I feel this adds a wonderful element to the site’s conservation value.”

 

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