Orchid Biodiversity and Conservation

Orchid Biodiversity and Conservation Worldwide by Phil Seaton

Following on from the recent lecture on conserving British orchids this one has a different outlook and profile with diversity, so complements each other nicely.

Phil has spoken to us previously on conservation – a subject that he is passionate about, and he is seen by many as the go-to person in the UK. He reminds us that he started out at the Jessop Hospital here in Sheffield as a Biochemist, and eventually taught there. He then spent most of his career as a Biology lecturer at Worcester College. Officially retired as a teacher, his passion for education is still at a high level, and the future for natural resources lies with the young ones – all around the world. This is important in furthering the work of DNA analysis amongst other research. Taking part in conservation helps to keep a roof over his head.

Long having orchid connections with Kew, Hugh Pritchard had the idea for an orchid seed bank, and lined up Phil to run the project. A grant was obtained in 2007, and the project started, which has since taken Phil all around the world – educating and collecting seed.

The main problem for orchid species and flora & fauna in particular is us humans. There are simply too many of us with ever increasing demands on the environment. This tends to push the poorer people out into the fringes of survival, and environment destruction. Global warming is just as damaging when rising sea levels will force humans away from the coast with further environmental destruction. This is already having an effect of course; with data collected by Prof. Mike Hutchins (Sussex University) over 30 years of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sp.) now being 2 weeks earlier on average. We know about the success of Cyp. calceolus in Yorkshire, but in Hungary the plants still grow OK until flowering whereupon drought causes withering and death reducing the total population and clump sizes. There are no seedlings growing of course.

Conservation started with the Rio convention in 1992, and alongside this the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was established – and within this was the Darwin Initiative (DI) in the UK. The global initiative started with banning CFCs, and is now moving towards pesticides. In the US it became necessary to stop the Florida swamps being drained for farming. Action is required worldwide not just in the tropics – in Poland the enormous Białowieża Forest is still being logged despite protection of critically important wetlands.

The orchids number 25-30,000 species making it the largest flowering family (the daisies are very close). We are familiar with the glamorous ones, but thousands of species are considered boring – but are still important! We know that orchid species have quite a bit of variation, and this is down to the natural diversity – be it geographical or colour forms.

For his own part Phil has a collection of dozens of Laelia anceps – all different. Within his locale around Worcester there are well maintained orchid rich meadows with green wings, common spotted and twayblades.

Many orchid habitats have been collected out once found, and this removes the diversity when only single protected areas remain. Thankfully in some countries such as China there remain several populations of many species, but maintaining this may become tricky in the future.

The most orchid diverse country is probably Colombia with 4270 recorded species. Ecuador could argue about that, and shares many species. These come from sea level to the top of the Andes. Some species have been collected by the thousand over the last 100 years, notably for Odm. crispum, which was easier to chop down the trees. The wood was then used to fuel the paddle steamers to get the plants to the coast for transport to Europe whereupon most died en-route! Many of the plants that remain in Colombia are the starry forms that no longer resemble the line bred ones in cultivation.

Over collection leads to extinction – seen with the Dodo and many others, and it becomes important that we don’t let this happen with orchids. Some people have started on the route for total conservation by buying up forests and jungles such as Dan Jansson who has bought dry forest land in Costa Rica to prevent destruction, and Dick Warren in the Organ Mountains in Brazil. Although dry forest may not seem as important as cloud forest, but all forests here hold orchids, and once lost cannot be recovered. This is important as many species often come from single locations – such as Paph. fairrieanum that only has 2 populations left in the wild, thankfully now in Bhutan & Indian nature reserves. It is important that these have been included on the Red list for endangered species (not just orchids).

International Orchid Conservation is called the OSSSU, and this is the umbrella group that co-ordinates how the local projects are funded and run. It has several hubs including Asia (Chengdu), South America, Africa & Europe. Phil often travels to these centres to assist in education and policy, involving local students where possible. One of the aims of conservation is to save orchid seed in case a habitat is wiped out – as is happening in the tropics with clearance for palm oil. Only ‘on the ground’ can students see and monitor species all year around, noting dates when flowers appear and when pods are ripe for collection. Students are taught how to perform pollination if nature doesn’t work quickly enough. Once collected the seed is dried – dried rice is still as good as anything. DNA analysis can then take place, and some seed is sown locally, stored locally, and also stored in the Millennium Seedbank at Wakehurst Place at -20C. The important thing for the seed bank is that the seed has its own provenance rather than being a species generic seed. Data on species is now being stored online rather than the old-fashioned methods of line drawing and pressed flowers.

Students are taught how to sow seed, and to experiment sometimes to try and improve things. This is happening in schools as well as in laboratories with common species used to gain experience. Local students in situ are getting to grips with the specific mycorrhizal fungus, and this will be useful in the future for future reintroductions. In the UK Cyp. calceolus is the flagship project, and in other locations emphasis can be somewhat different. Some cities such as Singapore are re-greening and planting mature species onto trees. Some of these have been the showier colourful species on the streets, and others more in the botanical gardens etc. These have included the large Grammatophyllum speciosum as well as the small Phal. Cornu-cervi, and the environment is constantly monitored.

A recent project has been Cyrtopodium punctatum (the cigar orchid) which is a native of the Fakahatchee swamps in Florida, and it was reported to be down to only 16 plants remaining at one point. Local conservationists learned how to pollinate it and undertook this course of action. Seed was collected, some banked and some sown (in Atlanta), and eventually reintroduced back to the swamps.

In Tanzania most inhabitants live an impoverished life, and struggle for food. Part of this includes eating tubers from Disa aperta and Habenaria holubii where they are collected from the wild which threatens the species’ survival. Attempts are now being made to determine whether the plants can be produced commercially (the mycorrhizal bit is just as important) and reduce the pressure on the native diversity of the species.

One of the most recent projects is Cattleya quadricolor – which is native to the dry forests of Central America. Although it isn’t the most popular of the genus it is still being collected, and now has only 3 natural populations remaining.

In the UK Efforts are being made on one of the more common species – Dact. Fuchsia, the common spotted orchid. In the Wye forest there is an important variety which grows there, and this is being artificially propagated and reintroduced.

There is no natural end to a lecture such as this, and time has run out. A good round of applause followed.