Michael’s rein orchid (Piperia michaelii)

About ten years ago our chapter Rare Plants Committee did an extensive but vain search for Piperia michaelii, Michael’s rein orchid, on Brotherhood Way, a site where it was reported (as Habenaria elegans) in A Flora of San Francisco, California (1958). Although widespread in its distribution in California, it is nowhere common, in fact fairly rare. It is in the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants of California on List 4, a “watch” list of plants which, if habitat continues to shrink, may become rare.

In July I was working alongside Lake Merced volunteers Craig and Martha Spriggs and Natural Areas Program (NAP) gardeners Carolyn Gates and Licia De Meo on the mesa at Lake Merced. Carolyn spotted an orchid growing by itself in a very open situation with no tall plants around. It didn’t look like either of the other two native orchids we were familiar with, Piperia maritima and Spiranthes romanzoffiana. California Academy of Sciences botanist Tom Daniel subsequently identified it as the long-lost Michael’s rein orchid. A few days later the NAP gardeners found a second population nearby.

After fifteen years of intensive involvement in the city’s tiny, heavily-impacted natural areas, we continue to make exciting discoveries. It adds to the many other rewards experienced by those working to restore the land here.