Orchid Conservation:
It Begins with You

How individuals and societies in the orchid community
can make a difference in the fight to save orchids

By Ned Nash

Above  Deforestation worldwide threatens orchids in their native environments.
Felling trees to expand this coffee plantation in Central America destroyed orchid
habitat and the plants that lived there. Photo Charles Marden Fitch

For many, the concept of conservation is simply too large to comprehend. And, for better or worse, human nature dictates that such concepts are either ignored or, even worse, the source of fear-generated anger and anxiety. The goal of every conservation-oriented group should be to bring into focus how conservation relates to both smaller groups (orchid societies) and to individuals. When small groups and, especially, individuals understand what conservation means to them personally, effective action can begin to be taken. Effective change comes about only by the concerted actions of many individuals. Such actions need not be earth-shattering efforts, either. Indeed, many are already second nature to dedicated orchid growers.

Production and distribution of accurate species-oriented information is what local orchid societies are all about. The newsletters of Affiliated Societies abound with snippets of orchid species information, whether generated by the members of that society, or gathered from other sources such as the Internet, personal contact or various international orchid journals, including Orchids.Your personal experiences in growing and propagating species orchid plants are a valuable resource that should be shared.

Sometimes there are experienced growers in your midst who are poor communicators. Perhaps you have befriended old Mr. Orchid Grower, and he’s taught you what he’s learned in his many years of growing orchids. Don’t be selfish, share the wealth, the heritage that this information represents. Or maybe you’ve learned a special technique to growing a species ordinarily thought to be hard to grow, or you’ve gotten a hot tip about its habitat from the supplier of the species. The editors of local orchid societies are always looking for material, so take a minute to jot down the lessons you’ve learned, or been taught, and share them. You do it with your spare divisions, too.

Left  Hobbyists can help preserve orchid species by purchasing seed-grown plants. Today, many nurseries offer a wide selection, making it easy to increase a collection without harming orchids in their native environment. Among the choices are Sobralia xantholeuca, a native of Costa Rica, grown by Tropical Orchid Farm. Photo: Masako Cordray

This Dendrobium dichaeoides, an attractive miniature with 4-inch-long canes, was grown by J&L Orchids. Photo Charles Marden Fitch

Perhaps the most immediate and important conservation action any orchid grower can take is to ensure that the orchid species plants in his or her personal collection are well cared for, properly labeled, and propagated. This is called ex-situ conservation. No single step will go further to ensuring the survival of fine orchid species than their successful cultivation, and no single step will go further in reducing the demand for wild-collected plants than the survival of existing plants in collections. We might take a lesson from the philosophy of some Native Americans and ask ourselves if we really own our orchid plants, or if they are simply temporarily in our care, a part of our collective heritage.

Let’s take this one step further: Perhaps we need to also be aware of the species orchid plants in the collections around us. Nothing is sadder or more unnecessary than the collection that perishes as a result of neglect. Disinterest, sickness, death — all can result in the loss of orchid species plants that may simply not be in other collections. At best, they are good plants that deserve to be enjoyed by others; at worst, something precious and unique may be lost forever. We often hear about rescuing orchids from imminent destruction in nature, but we should be even more concerned with rescuing the plants that are already in cultivation. Too, it is just a little bit facile to want to tell farmers in a country with families to feed not to cut trees so that orchids (and other plants they consider weeds) can be conserved when orchid plants are perishing in our greenhouses and homes.

There are other steps an individual or small group can take to further orchid conservation. We are already passing around good-quality information and keeping abreast of the health of the orchid species plants in our own collections as well as those in the collections of others in our group. The logical next step in this, since we now know better how to grow a wider variety of orchid species, and we know what, in general, is available in our "extended family," is to make our collective resources available to the broadest practical audience. The selfing and sibbing of species, with the seed being shared, or plants being grown for eventual distribution, whether by hobbyists or by cooperative local commercial growers, is an underutilized method of conservation.

 Purchasing land with native orchids can help safeguard orchids in the future. Owners of large parcels of property can make a difference in the preservation of orchid species by deeding their property to a conservation organization that will protect and monitor stands of native orchids, like the Cypripedium reginae shown here. Photo: Philip E. Keenan

Modern, progressive commercial growers are making long strides in the propagation of showy orchid species. For this, we can be grateful. We owe them our thanks and support. However, there are many wonderful orchid species that are simply not suitable for commercial growers to propagate. That is, commercial growers have to be able to make a living out of selling orchid plants and they often rely on more than the dedicated local society members. They must be able to sell a flowering plant based on its attractive appearance. If it is a species, so much the better.

Of course, many orchid species do not fit into this sort of program simply because, while they possess charm and are attractive to dedicated orchid growers, they won’t attract the buyer interested in pretty flowers. Here, orchid society members come into the picture. Imagine if all experienced orchid growers selected one of their best species every year and grew a flask or two to share out in their local groups. What a boon. What a bunch of happy orchid lovers there would be with so many free orchid species being passed around.

You can further aid conservation by spreading the word — inspire those around you to grow orchids. Maybe your neighbor would like to know more about orchids. A small piece of a flowering orchid species makes an excellent introduction to the hobby, especially when coupled with a book like Your First Orchid or Growing Orchids. If only your neighbors knew about that patch of native orchids in the highway swale, they’d be less insistent about having the swale mowed quite so often. Maybe if your children learned that wildflowers are really prettiest where they grow, and that you’d like to go see the flowers with them, but, oh, never, never pick them, please. When you think about taking a vacation in orchid habitats, the same goes for you: See them, photograph them, but do not even think of collecting.

Often, with a little planning, a certified nursery can be found in the country of origin, where cultivated native orchid species plants can be found, ready for shipping to your home. This has two advantages: the forests stay the way they’ve been for millennia, and the residents of the country of origin learn that visitors to their forests will pay money to see them in an original state, as well as buy their cultivated species, rather than wild-collected plants. This is sustained use at its best, whether just for ecotourism or by also encouraging the cultivation of native plants.

There are so many ways we can effect conservation in our daily lives. Most of us already do some of them. More than anything else, we need to cultivate awareness. We need to be aware of conservation, and how our everyday actions affect the world around us. If it is as simple as growing our orchids a little better, about teaching others to do the same; as easy as sharing our orchids with others and exercising a little common sense when it comes to other living things, we can all subscribe to that. Give it some thought. We think you’ll agree that it doesn’t make any sense not to do what you personally can for conservation.

Above  Seed propagation has placed Dendrobium cuthbertsonii, a native of Papua New Guinea, within reach of any hobbyist with an interest in miniatures. J&L Orchids, which grew this specimen, tells about their experiences raising orchids from seed on page 381. Photo Charles Marden Fitch

Ned Nash is Director of Education and Conservation at the American Orchid Society and a frequent contributor to Orchids.  •  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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