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It's true: False mermaid-weed is found in Vermont for the first time since 1916

A woman in a Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department hat crouches down inspecting a small plant stem with one hand and holding a yellow notebook in the other hand. Tall ferns surround her on both sides.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department
Grace Glynn, a botanist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, looks at a false mermaid-weed specimen, part of a newly discovered population in Addison County. The plant was previously thought to be extinct in the state.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has rediscovered a plant that hasn't been recorded in the state for more than a hundred years.

False mermaid-weed is a small spring ephemeral found along river floodplains, and it hasn't been seen in the state since 1916. That's until a colleague recently sent a photo of a rare species of wild garlic to Grace Glynn, a botanist with the Fish and Wildlife Department.

"When I opened up the photo that she had sent, there was this little weird plant in the corner of the frame. And when I zoomed in, I immediately knew that it was Floerkea, that it was false mermaid-weed," Glynn said. "I couldn't believe that I was finally seeing this plant."

Glynn said she’s been looking for the plant for years, to no avail. It hasn’t been spotted in any of the handful of areas where it had historically been identified and collected.

A hand holds a thin stem with several very small, white flowers at the top.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department
False mermaid-weed flowers are very small, about a centimeter across.

The new population spans both public and private land along a slow-moving river in Addison County — a completely separate river from where the plant had previously been recorded.

Glynn said the newly discovered population may comprise of thousands of the plants. When she went to survey the area, she found them amid stands of ostrich ferns and the rare wild garlic species that helped lead to the finding.

Because the plant is a spring ephemeral, this discovery couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

"The thing about Floerkea, or false mermaid-weed, is that it's only visible for about four to six weeks every year,” Glynn said. “So if you're out in the place at the wrong time of year, you could just walk by it, and there would be nothing there. It would just be seeds on the ground."

The plant is unique because not only is it a spring ephemeral, but it’s also an annual. This means it carries out a full life cycle — germination, flowering, setting seed and dying — all in one season. Glynn said the plant makes very small, delicate blossoms and drops spiky, football-shaped seeds.

“If you crouch down in the floodplain right now, you'll notice that the ground is just carpeted with these little spiky fruits. And it was so cool to see that. You know, I've never seen that in Vermont,” Glynn said.

"If you're out in the place at the wrong time of year, you could just walk by it, and there would be nothing there. It would just be seeds on the ground."
Grace Glynn, Fish and Wildlife Department

It’s also the only species of the family Limnanthaceae, or meadowfoam, in the Northeast.

According to Glynn, the last botanist to record the plant in Vermont was Nellie Flynn, who contributed to the Pringle Herbarium at the University of Vermont.

“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 said. “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.”

Glynn said the amount of plants in the area indicates that there could be more populations of the species downstream. She plans to survey more areas, but some of that might have to wait for next year — the plant only blooms for about a month before withering away.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Zoe McDonald is a digital producer in Vermont Public’s newsroom. Previously, she served as the multimedia news producer for WBHM, central Alabama’s local public radio station. Before she discovered her love for public media, she created content for brands like Insider, Southern Living and Health. She graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2017. Zoe enjoys reading, drinking tea, trying new recipes and hiking with her dog.