Approaches for orchid conservation at the U.S. Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden combines science and education to keep orchids safe in their collections and in the wild.

Given the ongoing losses of biodiversity worldwide, including many plant species, increased commitment is needed to better protect plant diversity, particularly when disproportionate attention is often given to charismatic faunal species.  Integrating interdisciplinary approaches, including in situ and ex situ conservation efforts, taxonomic, geographic, and ecological research, as well as education and outreach through public programs is critical for effectively addressing various threats to plant diversity and for preventing permanent species and community losses across the planet. Botanic gardens can play a central role in this work with their combination of horticultural expertise, conservation experience, and ability to share science with the public.  The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) promotes plant science and conservation through its living collections, public displays, and partnerships, and offers educational plant science content and programs online and for its more than 1 million visitors per year. As the oldest continuously operating public garden in the United States (first envisioned by George Washington and founded in 1820), USBG works collaboratively with an array of partners to achieve collective goals toward understanding, preserving, and protecting our planet’s botanical diversity.

The USBG Conservatory was completed in 1933 and houses a diversity of plant species, some of which were collected on expeditions dating back as far as 1842. Photo courtesy of USBG.

Among all plant groups on the planet, the orchid family (Orchidaceae) is well known to be among the most diverse in terms of overall species numbers, with numerous rare and endemic taxa that are highly threatened in the wild.  Their overall significance in the horticultural trade increases their importance in terms of economic considerations.  From an ecological perspective, the natural history of orchid species varies widely and can be quite complex, oftentimes involving highly specific relationships with species from several other kingdoms of life, including fungi and animals. Of course, with such diversity and complexity, a great deal of questions remain in regard to the ecological and environmental needs of countless orchids, representing a greater challenge for orchid conservation efforts. Clearly, detailed studies are needed, paired with approachable education and outreach programs for diverse stakeholders to advance orchid conservation.

As one of the founding organizations (along with the Smithsonian Institution) of the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC), a coalition dedicated to conserving the more than 200 orchids native to North America, the orchid collection at the USBG is one of the specialised collections aimed at preservation of global plant diversity.  Currently, the USBG houses approximately 3,000 orchid specimens of over 1,500 taxa that are representative of the family’s overall diversity.  This collection has been developed over time through partnerships with national and international institutional collaborators as well as with contributions from private citizens.

A blooming specimen of Stereochilus dalatensis (Guillaumin) Garay that was confiscated by authorities after being exported without proper authorization is now cultivated at the USBG in its permanent collection and displayed for the public. This miniature species is considered rare throughout much of its range and is listed on CITES Appendix 2 to help protect it from over-exploitation. Photo courtesy of USBG.

Another source of specimens in the collection is plants that have been confiscated after being imported or exported without proper authorization under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations. Such regulations strive to prevent illegal over-exploitation that is severely detrimental to native orchid populations in the wild. In such instances, confiscated specimens are brought to botanical institutions including the USBG as part of the U.S. Plant Rescue Center Program so that they may be cared for and removed from illegal trade.  Incredibly, between 2006 and 2010, over 38,000 plants were confiscated in the U.S. under CITES regulations, over 27,000 of which were orchids. The USBG continues to house and conserve many CITES specimens ex situ where they may be used for research and showcased in public educational displays and programming.

Other noteworthy orchids in the collection originate directly from wild populations. These specimens have been collected, often as seed, on officially permitted research field trips to various locations worldwide and later cultivated at the USBG.  For example, USBG and other NAOCC partners are currently supporting work on the Palau Orchid Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort initiated by NAOCC and the U.S. Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry aimed at studying Palauan orchids to aid with conservation efforts in their native habitats.  Researchers on the project work to document the diversity and distribution of orchids in Palau to better understand their fundamental ecology and to identify important conservation and restoration targets.  Seeds and tissue samples of native Palauan orchids are collected for ecological studies and conservation purposes.  Germination trials of wild collected seeds are conducted at NAOCC partner institutions including Illinois College and the Center for Plant Conservation.

Benches full of Dendrobium chrysotoxum Lindl. (foreground) and Dendrobium densiflorum Lindl. (background) in bloom at the USBG greenhouses are a sight to behold. Both species are exploited for traditional medicines in their native habitats and are of conservation concern. The majority of these specimens were confiscated by authorities under CITES regulations. Photo courtesy of USBG.

A NAOCC researcher sows orchid seeds from Palau under a sterile hood at Illinois College. Successful propagules will be cultivated long term at the college and at USBG. Eventually, plants may also be used in reintroduction efforts in their native habitats. Photo courtesy of USBG.

These germination trials are critical for understanding the nature of obligatory symbiotic relationships between orchid species and their mycorrhizal associates, which are being isolated and identified by NAOCC partners at the Smithsonian Institution and Illinois College under special permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Healthy seedlings from asymbiotic trials, those using orchid seed sowing medium as opposed to natural mycorrhizal associates, are now being cultivated in the orchid collections at USBG where they can serve as specimens for comparative analyses and sources of genetic material for taxonomic assessments. Once mature, they may also serve as added sources of seeds and propagules that could be used in future analyses and for reintroduction efforts in situ in their native range.  Overall, these efforts are aimed at bolstering native orchid populations while reducing demand for illegally collected orchids and thus alleviating pressures on wild populations in Palau and elsewhere.

A specimen of Dipodium freycinetiodes Fukuy., which is rarely found in orchid collections.  This specimen was collected as seed in its native habitat, germinated by NAOCC partners at the Center for Plant Conservation, and is now being cultivated in the orchid collection at USBG. Photo courtesy of USBG.

While ex situ collections at the USBG and research activities conducted through NAOCC’s consortium of partners provide critical resources for orchid conservation and insights on orchid ecology, our integrated approach also leverages public outreach and education programs to promote the findings of research and conservation outcomes and raise awareness of critical issues that continue to affect orchid species worldwide.  Public gardens like the USBG provide substantial opportunities to engage broad public audiences in exhibits and promote orchid conservation. The USBG operates a renowned education department that offers direct engagement and multiple hands-on resources and programs designed to educate audiences about the diversity, ecology, and conservation of orchids and plants in general. For example, the USBG develops a themed public orchid show annually in partnership with Smithsonian Gardens in which orchid specimens from across the planet are on public display. Ecology and conservation messaging are critical components of the show and are directly integrated into orchid displays. Such interpretive messaging raises awareness of issues surrounding orchid conservation and introduces broad audiences to the primary scientific research involved in preservation efforts for these species.

In addition to educational offerings in the USBG Conservatory and outdoor gardens, our team works with NAOCC partners on outreach and educational programs focused on creative approaches to orchid conservation messaging.  One such approach has been through the development and distribution of “Orchid-gami” models. These 28 three-dimensional paper models offer an entertaining hands-on activity that can be used in the classroom and in informal settings as an engaging tool for learning about orchid species, their natural history, and the challenges that they face in the wild.  As part of the Palau Orchid Conservation Initiative, hundreds of copies of a newly developed model for one of Palau’s native orchids (Dipodium freycinetioides, the Palau Hyacinth Orchid) have been distributed at local schools, museums, ecotourism businesses, and public festivals in Palau. Through such creative activities, the USBG and NAOCC partners are able to engage an even broader audience and further the dissemination of orchid conservation messaging.

As is the case with any component of our planet’s biodiversity, conservation of the world’s orchid species and communities cannot rely on any one single approach.  Scattered among the extremely diverse and often complex orchid family are a suite of varied needs, pressures, threats, and accordingly, potential solutions for ensuring their persistence over time. For that reason, the USBG is committed to participating in and developing new, diverse, and evolving approaches to orchid conservation, research, and education. In doing so, the USBG aims to share with our visitors unparalleled experiences with our planet’s orchid diversity while ensuring the survival of these incredible plants for future generations.

About the United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) is the oldest continuously operating public garden in the United States. The Garden informs visitors about the importance and fundamental value and diversity of plants, as well as their aesthetic, cultural, economic, therapeutic, and ecological significance. With over a million visitors annually, the USBG strives to demonstrate and promote sustainable practices. The U.S. Botanic Garden is a living plant museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

Dr. Benjamin Crain has been working with orchids for over 20 years and has published numerous research articles on orchid ecology and conservation. He currently maintains the orchid collections at the U.S. Botanic Garden and is an ecologist with the North American Orchid Conservation Center at the Smithsonian Institute.

Spanish translation by Lorena Villanueva Almanza

1 comment

  • Great article and awesome work, Dr. Crain!

    Lauren Nicol
    Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

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