Mt. Cuba Botanists Seek to Protect Native Orchids
(April 21, 2018) They’ve captured our imagination for hundreds of years. They’re everywhere – weddings, grocery stores, even Beyoncé’s tour merch. They’re orchids, and Delaware’s native orchids are in danger of going extinct.
While the most frequently encountered orchid in the horticultural trade is the tropical Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, there are dozens of species native to Delaware. In fact, one could be growing in your backyard. There are two key differences between Delaware’s native orchids and the tropical orchids available at the grocery store: our orchids grow from the ground, rather than up in trees, and don’t boast as big a floral display.
“Orchids are highly evolved and ecologically important plants. They deserve our awe and protection,” said Adrienne Bozic, Mt. Cuba Center’s Orchid Research Fellow who is working to conserve these rare and endangered native plants. “I think they’re just as beautiful as their tropical counterparts.”
Two native orchids that are fairly common are white nodding ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes cernua), which blooms in the fall with dozens of white flowers spiraling around slender stalks, and pink ladies’ slipper (Cypripedium acaule), which produces a pale pink, bulging flower. Orchid flowers vary in size, shape, and color, but all have a modified petal that serves as landing strip for pollinators.
The relationships orchids have with their habitats are highly specialized and serve as examples of the network of complicated interdependencies that occur throughout the natural world. Wild orchids employ the fungi species present in the soil to help them germinate, grow, and bloom by delivering nutrients to their roots. In return, the fungus gets access to carbohydrates produced from photosynthesis in the orchid. This relationship between plant and fungus is called a mycorrhizal association, and little is known about the specific relationships between different orchid species and their associated fungi. It also makes them unsuitable for wild collection.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to transplant wild orchids due to their required association with fungal species occurring in the soil,” Bozic said. “Most wild orchids, dug up, will not survive once transplanted.”
Because of researchers’ limited knowledge about them, these native jewels are sometimes difficult to locate.
“They really can pop up anywhere,” said Eileen Boyle, Mt. Cuba Center’s Director of Education and Research. “But they prefer undisturbed sites.”
Undisturbed sites, like large stretches of forest that haven’t been logged or invaded by non-native plant species, or wetlands that have never been drained or dammed, are disappearing as human encroachment in these territories expands. Increased pressure from deer and non-native, invasive species of plants that choke out the few sites where these orchids flourish also reduces available habitat for these plants.
Orchids are an indicator species. Their relationships with their habitats are so specific and intricate that their mere presence in a site is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
“They’re like the canary in the coal mine for changes in the ecosystem,” Boyle said. But to find out what the orchids in Delaware indicate, researchers must establish baseline data for orchids. “Step one is finding them. You can’t do anything if you can’t find them.”
On the Hunt
Finding an orchid in the forest is like finding a needle in a haystack. To find out where to start, researchers examined historical documents in which botanists of yesteryear recorded orchid sightings. “We actually went back to books and records from the 1850s, to herbarium pressings,” Boyle said. “Orchids are notorious for coming up one year, and then again in 50 years. They lie under the ground for a long time.”
Modern research comes into play, too. Bozic and her team pooled research from the Delaware State Botanist and other conservation organizations to come up with a list of possible sites to find orchids.
But with such a large area to cover, Bozic needed assistance. Mt. Cuba Center assembled a team of 22 community science volunteers, called Orchid Scouts, to spread across the state in search of orchids.
“I couldn’t possibly accomplish my goals without the help of some really dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. I’ve got a great network,” Bozic said. “They help me survey known orchid locations, comment on the presence or absence of the orchid, and also to collect habitat indicator data.”
If there’s a large population of plants, Bozic collects samples from the plants. She sends tissue samples–mycelial connection and all–to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Annapolis, Maryland, and seed to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank in New York City. Any data they collect is also shared with the Delaware state botanist, Bill McAvoy. Some of the fungus species Bozic has collected on the root samples are so new to researchers that they don’t even have a name.
“Our research will directly inform conservation in the state and prioritization of conservation dollars in the state,” Bozic said.
This process will be long. For as small as Delaware is, there are still many areas of prime habitat which have not been surveyed by botanists. Bozic and her volunteers are working their way through these parcels–public lands and properties which they have permission to access, only–and have identified 30 new populations of orchids in the state, nearly double the previously known number of orchid populations.
“I hope that in 50 years, there’s a native orchid sitting on my desk, or in my garden,” Boyle said. “That would mean that we’ve figured out how to grow and conserve them. There’s a horticultural appeal to owning an orchid, but it’s more important that we’ve figured out how to save them.”
Keeping Orchids Safe
These populations include some exceedingly rare species, which are a conservation priority. “It’s important to maintain the overall diversity of native species in the forest and of orchid species,” Bozic said. “Losing one of these populations is irreversible and leads to losses in biodiversity statewide.”
Because of their precarious state, conservationists urge Delawareans not to transplant or pick the flowers from these orchid populations. Some orchid species in the state are so few in number that they may already be gone.
Other things gardeners can do include removing invasive species from their gardens, and volunteering to reduce the number in our state parks and protected areas. And, take a look around your own property: If you know of a native orchid on your property, take a photo of it and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will ask to send a confirmation team member and add it to our orchid database.
Want to learn more about Mt. Cuba Center’s orchid research? Discover which of Delaware’s 30 native orchid species grows in your area and learn how to help conserve their fragile habitats. On Thursday, April 26, Adrienne Bozic, Mt. Cuba’s Orchid Research Fellow, will describe her research and the orchids that live in our state. Each student will take home a native ladies’ tresses orchid. There will also be a Native Orchid Information Booth at Mt. Cuba Center’s Annual Wildflower Celebration on the following Sunday, April 29th. The Wildflower Celebration event is free to attend.
This article originally appeared in the Saturday, April 21, 2018 edition of the News Journal. Read it on their site here.