Preserving orchids in nature and in cultivation was the theme of the 16th World Orchid Conference
By Ned Nash

Reprinted from the August 1999 issue of Orchids -- The magazine of the American Orchid Society.

Theming a World Orchid Conference on a topic as controversial and mystifying as conservation is a daring, almost unheard-of move. Yet this is just what the organizers of the 16th World Orchid Conference vowed to do more than six years ago when they first began their planning for the conference held in Vancouver, British Columbia, April 23 through May 2. The result was that the public responded favorably and there were enough qualified speakers. The speakers program was the high point of the conference, with a wealth of information for novice and experienced orchidists alike. Indeed, many attendees were seen rushing back and forth between the two lecture rooms to take advantage of the staggered schedule and hear as many of the presentations as they possibly could. Conservation, horticulture, breeding, science, art and more were all well represented in the talks. For those who could not get enough information just attending the many fine lectures, there was one of the most fully packed Poster Sessions ever seen, with participation in a special conservation section being especially noteworthy.

The opening day of the conference, and the first day of lectures, was themed "A Day of Conservation and Understanding." This Plenary session was opened by greetings from Vancouver’s Mayor Lee, a stirring welcome from the president of the World Orchid Conference Trust and former AOS president, Pete Furniss, and thanks to the Program Committee from Conference Chairman, Wally Thomas, PhD. Thomas noted that while the greatest threat to biodiversity in general was staggering population growth, it was imperative that the advances in science being made every day be made available to everyone in an understandable way. This, then, was to be the main thrust of the conservation-oriented lectures, most of which would be given on this opening day. Furniss proved to be an ideal moderator for the opening session, with his well-known combination of knowledge and understanding coupled with an infectious sense of humor.

There could be no better lead-off speaker in a conference dedicated to conservation that Phillip Cribb, PhD. Conceded to be one of the most knowledgeable orchidists of our generation, widely traveled, extensively published, chairman of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Orchid Specialist Group and an engaging, eloquent speaker, Cribb is one of today’s foremost spokesmen for orchid conservation. His presentation, entitled "Orchids at the Millennium, Diversity and Status," began with an overview of orchids that covered three important questions: Why are orchids so diverse? Why are they threatened? What can we do? 

Psychilis kraenzlinii, which is widespread in moist habitats of Puerto Rico, generally occurs in small populations, often in unprotected areas. One by one, these populations are threatened by urban development, limestone mining and collection activity.

Contrary to what many may think, the orchid family is a fairly old - 125 or more million years - yet rapidly evolving group. As Cribb pointed out, "Variation is the meat of evolution." Orchids have evolved to take advantage of marginal, often disturbed habitats, where harsh conditions favor the evolutionarily adaptive. In other words, orchids are in many cases colonizing plants. Cribb also notes that there are few documented extinctions known in orchids, as well as between 200 and 500 newly described orchids each year. Sounds like a successful group of plants, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but with people ravaging habitat at an ever-increasing rate, and horticulturally desirable species being collected with little regard to consequences, orchids can also be seen as the pandas of the plant world. And it is in this role that orchids may ultimately prove to have the greatest value - as a flagship of conservation. In the same way people relate more easily to the cute and cuddly animals of a given locale than they might to the slimy or scaly, plants of great beauty and charisma can be used to focus attention on habitat that holds more than just the beautiful.

This specimen, possibly a geographic variant or a hybrid of Psychilis kraenzlinii, is currently being studied. Populations of this form are limited, but occur in a small protected biological reserve. 

Another of the opening day’s premier conservation-related speakers was James Ackerman, PhD, of the University of Puerto Rico. Ackerman’s presentation, "Plants in the Greenhouse - Species Salvation or the Living Dead?" dealt with the uncomfortable subject of whether we are kidding ourselves by promoting ex situ (out-of-habitat) conservation. One of the most daunting issues facing conservationists is the simple fact that all aspects of any given habitat - pollinators, all of the aspects of pollinator habitat, mycorhizal fungi, among others - must be preserved, or what you have in essence is a museum full of living fossils. Ackerman’s assertion is that most attempts at ex situ conservation amount to just this. Unless specific measures are taken from the outset to ensure that the ultimate reintroduction of the particular species into its native habitat is the goal, we end up with just some pretty plants. 

Ackerman stressed the importance of a population being "well connected" to the ecology and that "persistence is not always indicative of population health." In other words, just because the plants seem to "hang on" in no way means that the population is healthy in the long run. That orchids often occur in disturbed habitats makes meaningful assessment of population health doubly difficult, as they may undergo a periodic extinction only to show up some time later in a similar habitat distant from the original site. In the end, and in a realistic sense, ex situ conservation is the least effective method of conserving genetic diversity, according to Ackerman. And, in the largest sense of the conservation of complete genetic diversity, he is certainly correct.

Dichaea hystricina is found in wet forests of the Greater Antilles and parts of Central and South America. This widespread species is not always endangered, although local populations may be threatened by habitat destruction. Fortunately, populations in Puerto Rico occur in protected forests.

My talk, "The Role of Societies and Individuals in Conservation," took a slightly different tack. It is difficult for the layman to argue with the findings of some of the finest orchid minds of our generation. However, it is imperative that we not feel that all is lost. Ex situ conservation does have its place in our avocation, and it is one of the ways in which the everyday orchid grower can participate in making a difference in world conservation. Basically, if we take the best care we can of the species we already have in cultivation, and do a responsible job of propagating new species, we can significantly reduce the collecting pressure on the plants that remain in the wild. These, and other simple measures, are some of the ways in which societies and their membership can help to conserve our heritage of orchids. While many of the issues covered in my talk are also contained in the AOS Conservation Committee’s new brochure, Conservation is Everybody’s Responsibility, we’d be happy to send a transcript of the speech to any member who desires it. (Request your copy by telephone 561-585-8666; fax 561-585-0654; e-mail TheAOS@ 

The afternoon session, cochaired by the famous Rapee Sagarik, MD, and Wendy Strahm, PhD, of the World Conservation Union, took a closer look at some of the issues surrounding world conservation. The efforts of one of Canada’s orchid conservation groups, the Orchid Species Preservation Foundation of Alberta, were outlined by Darlene Diver. Margaret Ramsay gave a look at the progress made at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the propagation of endangered orchids from seed for reintroduction, as well as for horticulture. Kew is one of the leaders in the discovery of appropriate media for some of the more recalcitrant terrestrial orchid species. Harold Koopowitz, PhD, of the University of California at Irvine, shared his views on "Extinction Models," while Michael Fay, PhD, again represented some of Kew’s conservation efforts that will result in more sound decision-making. Other conservation-oriented lectures were salted through the rest of the week, keeping attendees well-satiated with thought-provoking concepts and facts.

The memory of World Orchid Conference lectures lingers long after those of the associated events fades. Few remember the Grand Champion of the Auckland World Orchid Conference. I do remember this orchid, but I treasure the Proceedings of that conference much more for the information they hold. The same goes for all World Orchid Conferences. Nowhere else do so many orchidists gather to share so much information. If you missed this one, get your hands on its Proceedings.

Ned Nash is the director of education and conservation at the American Orchid Society. - 6000 South Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach, Florida 33405 (e-mail TheAOS@compuserve. com)

Copyright 1999 American Orchid Society. All rights reserved.

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