Mt Cuba Center
Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – March 12, 2019


Q+A: Orchid Mysteries

Nearly all native plants form beneficial associations with fungi in the wild, allowing them to access nutrients and tolerate stressful conditions. Orchids, however, need particular species of fungi that are not always available, which complicates efforts to restore and conserve more than 200 species of endangered native orchids in the US and Canada.

This Saturday, March 16, we are joined by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Melissa McCormick, PhD who will present Unlocking the Mysteries of Native Orchids at 11 AM. The cost is $20 to attend, and refreshments are included. In anticipation of the lecture, we asked Dr. McCormick some questions about orchid conservation. Scroll down for the Q+A!

Platanthera ciliaris, or yellow fringed orchid, is one of the 23 orchids native to the state of Delaware.

What is an orchid’s role in the ecosystem?

Orchids have many roles in the ecosystem. They support specific insects, for example, but importantly they work as an indicator species, both above and below ground. The comparison that’s often made is that they’re a canary in a coal mine. They’re very sensitive to the quality of the environment and they often show changes in the environment before any other species are going to be affected.

Why are orchids difficult to conserve?

The main reason is they rely very closely on other species like specific pollinators and specific fungi. In our area our orchids are growing in the soil because it’s too cold to grown on trees. They’re sensitive to the fungi in the soil and the pollinators above ground. That means if you’re going to conserve orchids you have to keep the environment in very, very good shape. A little improvement isn’t going to cut it. We also don’t know everything about what they need to grow, so if we’re going to reintroduce orchids, and the environment is slightly not right for the fungi they need, it might not be successful. Because they’re so difficult to grow, they’re often not available in the nursery trade and that can lead to folks digging them up in the wild, and that leads them to die very quickly. It creates a high demand for these very pretty species because we cannot grow them in the industry, and puts pressure on their wild populations.

Calopogon tuberosus, or grass-pink, thrives in Mt. Cuba’s bog garden.

What does a successful and thriving orchid population look like?

It’s going to be different for different species. Some species can have large populations and some are regularly rare. For a rare species a few plants that come back every year and even bloom can mean that population is thriving.  Some orchids occur very abundantly. Generally, you want something that emerges from the ground every year and at least a handful that flower and set seed every year. To find those populations we’re looking for pretty intact—that is, not disturbed—environments. When you get to a forest and see a this is a nice diversity of plant species, not a lot of disturbance, not a lot of invaders—we can see that this might be a place for orchids. We can’t say that a disturbed environment would never be good for orchids, but it’s a different kind of species in those environments.

Kentucky lady’s slipper, or Cypripedium kentuckiense, stands out in the summer gardens with its large, eye-catching flowers.

Is there anything the general public can do to help conserve native orchids?

First, obviously, don’t dig up orchids in the wild and don’t buy orchids that you suspect were wild collected. We don’t want to encourage that! The best thing you can do is protect the environment that they need. This can mean control for invaders—both plants and animals—and not planting them in your garden. This can also mean when development takes place, take account for the water flow and how it affects the nearby environment. The deer are horrendous. I’m not saying go out and kill them all, but to the extent that we can support effective deer management can be tremendously important to our native environment.

There are a number of local and national organizations that support our orchids. We have founded the North American Orchid Conservation Center and we are looking to find out what do these orchids need and what can we do to conserve them and how can we propagate them. For most people one of the biggest deals is the invasive plants that come in and cover an area, change the soil dynamic, change what fungi are available and that changes the habitat of the orchids. Not planting invaders is good, but also removing them where they are is helpful. For example, garlic mustard produces anti-fungal compounds which destroy the fungi that the orchids need.

To learn more about orchid conservation, attend Dr. McCormick’s lecture this Saturday, March 16th at 11 am.