The rarest plant in Great Britain may be the Epipogium aphyllum, more commonly known as the Ghost Orchid. For the past 150 years this plant has disappeared for 20 or more years at a time only to show up again just as hope is lost that it is gone forever.
Britain’s Ghost Orchid was first discovered in 1855 when a woman, Mrs. Anderson Smith, noticed the leafless orchid nearly hidden among nettles and ferns. Smith plucked the unusual plant and brought it to a local plant lover who identified it as a leafless orchid. It was the first such sighting of the plant in all of Britain. The Ghost Orchid mystery thickened in the following days when the specimen disappeared without a trace. One local newspaper reported at the time that the Ghost Orchid may have accidentally been discarded when the exhibit room was cleaned. It would be the last time that a Ghost Orchid was seen for 20 years.
After 20 years another Ghost Orchid was discovered in a different wooded area. Twenty years later yet another Ghost Orchid was found in yet another wooded area. Local lore identified it as a once-in-a-generation plant. The plant was found in Great Britain, Scotland, and Wales.
The mystery surrounding the Ghost Orchid grew because nobody could explain why it was found only every 20 or more years, how it could grow in the shade, or how its seeds were spread.
In 1926, a young girl discovered not one, but two Ghost Orchids. The girl gave one orchid to Francis Druce, a local plant hunter, and placed the other in a vase at her home. Despite the pleading of representatives from the British Museum in London, the girl refused to donate her Ghost Orchid sample to science. The girl was persuaded to at least lead the adults back to the spot in the woods where she found the Ghost Orchids, but not further specimens were to be found.
In the years since the 1926 discovery, there have been several other findings of the Ghost Orchid. The plant was found in the 1950s and again in the 1980s. Finally, after decades without a known appearance, the Ghost Orchid was declared extinct in 2005.
Alas, Britain’s rarest plant made yet another comeback after being declared extinct. In 2009, four years after hope was abandoned that the Ghost Orchid would return, businessman and plant hunter Mark Jannick spotted a ghost. Jannick had been hunting the elusive Ghost Orchid in likely spots for weeks when he spotted the six-inch tall plant in a woodlot.
The Ghost Orchid continues to be something of a mystery. Scientists now know that the plant grows without chlorophyll, unlike almost every other forest plant. This explains how the plant can grow in the shaded forest without sunlight. It has also been discovered that the Ghost Orchid is a parasite that feeds on a fungus below the surface of the ground. However it manages to grow without sunlight, and disappear for 20 or more years at a time, the Ghost Orchid is an interesting and rare plant.