Millions of Orchids Are Blooming in an Abandoned Iron Mine – by Michelle Z. Donahue (National Geographic – May 12, 2016)

The plants are thriving in a wetland that sprang up after the mine was shuttered in the 1970s.

A vacationer heading to Lake Placid on State Route 3 could be forgiven for barely glancing at a group of dilapidated buildings on the way through Star Lake, New York. Those structures are all that remain of what was once the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.

But hidden in a wooded marsh directly across the street, curious road trippers would find an even more startling deposit: Millions of orchids have been thriving for over 60 years on the blighted industrial waste site.

The colorful flowers are growing atop a wetland that formed at the base of a pile of tailings—crushed rock left over when iron ore is extracted from its surroundings. As part of her research, graduate student Grete Bader tallied up the plants within 20 predefined plots, and her work suggests wildflowers now cover the hundred-acre wetland.

That includes staggering amounts of native terrestrial orchids, such as the rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and the grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus). The site also boasts the state’s largest collection of threatened pink shinleaf (Pyrola asarifolia).

“A million individuals of any given species is ridiculous,” says Bader, who studies conservation biology at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF). “But I was seeing hundreds of individuals in each dense patch, and when you extrapolate that up, it’s believable.”

Fungal Friends

The former Benson Mines site, just 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) from the Canadian border, lies outside of the massive Adirondack Forest Preserve in upstate New York. Moose, beaver, otter, and deer are common denizens, while people are thinly scattered.

At its zenith in the 1940s, the Benson Mines pit supplied iron ore for government war efforts, shifting in the 1950s to supplying iron for steel used in the burgeoning auto industry. The relatively low iron content of the ore and the area’s remoteness led to the mine’s eventual decline, and it was shuttered in the 1970s.

For the rest of this article: