October 26, 2012
An orchid bloom, so delicate and elegant, arises out of a complex symbiotic relationship with, of all things, fungi. It’s a classic case of beauty and the beast, or gorgeous meets gross. But the fundamental relationship between the much-admired botanical family known as the Orchidaceae, which make up more than ten percent of the world’s plants, and the little-understood fungi that live in the soils of a forest floor, is one of the more complex mysteries being studied by Smithsonian orchid ecologists. And as more and more orchid species disappear from North American forests, botanist Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, says it’s another example of the canary in the coal mine, a warning that must be heeded. “When orchids are present,” Whigham says, “that means the ecosystem is in good shape.”
Recently, to help foster a better understand of the optimal conditions it takes for native wild orchids to survive, if not thrive, Whigham and his colleagues announced the formation of the North American Orchid Conservation Center, a public-private partnership that includes several regional botanical gardens as well as the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The plan is to establish a national seed bank for the 250 known species of North American orchids and to identify the genetic diversity of the fungi that are central to the life-cycle of each species and figure out how to propagate them. “There were just a few people working on conserving native orchids,” says Whigham, “but now we’ve created a national network.”
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