Roxy Todd Published

Rare Orchids Abound in W.Va.'s Wild Places


If you live in West Virginia, chances are, you’ve driven past a cluster of wild pink or white orchids just off the side of a curvy road. Some of the best opportunities in the country to find them are located along our rural mountain hillsides.

A few years ago, two orchid enthusiasts discovered a rare and previously undiscovered species, known as Platanthera shriveri, or Shriver’s Purple Frilly Orchid. 

I was sworn to secrecy not to reveal the location of our hike before Scott Shriver and Clete Smith agreed to take me to see one of the rare orchids they discovered. After all, poachers have been known to dig them up. Let’s just say we took a little walk along a road to a steep hillside, in the misty mountains of Pocahontas County.

The Highland Scenic Highway in Pocohantas County

Credit Claire Hemme / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The Highland Scenic Highway in Pocohantas County

Shriver is a retired high school biology teacher from Pittsburgh, who helped discover the Purple Frilly Orchid, and named it after his dad.

“He was my best friend for 30 years,” Shriver said. “I wanted to honor him so I asked if we could name it after him. He died in 2008, we published in 2008, so it was a kind of a tribute to him.” 


Credit Claire Hemme/ WVPB
Clete Smith and Scott Shriver, who discovered the Purple Frilly Orchid. Shriver has a tattoo of the orchid he helped discover.

A report about the new species was published in the North American Native Orchid Journal. But aside from a few orchid fans and scientists, few people heard about the discovery.

“As a teacher, kids would say, ‘How much money did you get? How famous are you?'” Shriver recalled. “There’s no money, there’s no fame,” he told his students.

Shriver's Purple Frilly Orchid

Credit Paul Martin Brown / North American Native Orchid Journal
North American Native Orchid Journal
Each plant can have up to 100 flowers on its stalk. Some of the flowers are no bigger than a nickel or a quarter. “So a lot of people would be excited to see that and hopefully they wouldn’t pick it,” Shriver said.

The Hunt

The ground is spongy and mossy under our feet as we make our way down a hillside covered in green ferns and tall grass. Scott and Smith are on the hunt for the orchid they discovered.

Then, we spot them. Each of the plants have lots of little purple flowers, each shaped like an orchid, with a kind of a funny hat on top, and a frilly, ornamental skirt at its base.

And then, laughing with giddiness, Smith points out a hybrid plant they didn’t expect to find. I peer close to see a green orchid, right next to a very rare, hybrid version. Basically, Shriver explains, they think the green orchid crossed with the Purple Frilly they discovered to make a sort of orchid love child that has this cool green and purple color combination.

For these two orchid fans, this is like Christmas in July.

“It’s a treasure hunt. There’s no doubt, it’s treasure,” said Shriver.  


Credit courtesy Clete Smith
A green fringed orchid that reproduced with the purple frilly to create a a rare orchid hybrid

Shriver and Smith are part of an informal group of orchid hobbyists who scour the country looking for these wild flowers.

“We just fell in love with orchids, and we hunted them from Alaska to Newfoundland. I mean North American orchids were our hobby. Some people play golf, we did North American Orchids. So we were just orchid crazy,” said Shriver. 

Wild West Virginian Orchid Hunting Grounds

West Virginia has a really good climate and geography for orchids, making it a secret hotbed for finding a lot of different types of flowers. So Smith and Shriver began making regular trips to visit. They even made a goal to try to see an orchid in every county in the state. And they did.   

“I know there’s been a lot of cutting of forests, there’s been a lot of coal mining, there’s been a lot of damage that has occurred here, but there are a lot of little nooks and crannies that still exist here that are still pristine,” Shriver said.


Credit Claire Hemme/ WVPB
Scott Shriver talking with reporter Roxy Todd about the orchid he helped discover in W.Va.

Shriver said some of the best places to see orchids are in the Monongahela National Forest — 300,000 acres of which are located in Pocahontas County. “And so we were drawn to Pocahontas County, which is the pinnacle of orchids because you can see 18 species of orchids in one day, in bloom!” 


Credit Claire Hemme/ WVPB
Plantanther shriveri, also known as a pale frilly orchid

Orchids even grow in places where you may not think to see them. Some orchids like those pristine niches, other orchids like disturbed area.

“Old strip mines are one of our favorite places to go orchid hunting,” said Shriver. “Not a strip mine that ended two years ago, but one that ended 30 years ago and is recovering by succession. Orchids are going to move into those areas.”

“So West Virginia’s just a great place,” Shriver added. “Pennsylvania’s good, West Virginia’s probably better. And so we spend a lot of time here.” 

Neither Shriver nor Smith are professional botanists, but they insist that anyone with an interest in exploring the outdoors can make big discoveries, especially in remote Appalachia

“I think there are things in the nooks and crannies of West Virginia that nobody has ever seen before and that’s exciting. When you’re here, it’s kind of like you’ve escaped urban and suburban areas and a lot of places in West Virginia. It’s wild,” said Shriver. 


Credit courtesy Doug Jolley


But this abundantly diverse wildness is fragile. Deer are a threat to orchids, and there are poachers who steal them to grow in greenhouses or to plant in their backyards.

Recently, an endangered orchid that grows on Cheat Mountain was nearly wiped out by poachers. So I assure Shriver and Smith, their secret is safe with me. If you want to find an orchid, you’ll have to go driving out to the mountains yourself. 

Keep your eyes peeled though, because you never know what you’ll find on the back roads of West Virginia.