Many gardeners around the world consider orchids among the most beautiful flowering plants. There are more than 20,000 species of orchids, and some of them are in danger of extinction. Botanists in Florida have embarked on a five-year project to save some of the local species.
Orchids grow almost everywhere in the world, although they are mostly associated with the warm and humid tropics, including South Florida.
The 'Sunshine State' is home to about 50 native species, but many of them are critically endangered by urban expansion and orchid hunters, says the director of Miami's Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Carl Lewis.
“Most of those orchids are very difficult to find now. They have been hunted almost to extinction in the wild, so, really, we launched this project just as an effort to bring those orchids back,” said Lewis.
The project - to grow and plant 1 million orchid seedlings - began two years ago.
Orchids primarily grow on trees, but because their seedlings are so delicate, they start their life in the lab.
Tiny seeds, no bigger than a grain of dust, grow in sterile bottles with appropriate nutrients. After they germinate, the young plants are transferred to an incubator with LED lights.
The next phase is the nursery. It may take up to two years before the plants are strong enough to be attached to trees.
Lewis said it is important to transplant enough mature orchids so they can continue to reproduce without help from his volunteers.
“This is supposed to be an infusion, just to get so many out there that they start to reproduce on their own,” he said.
Scientists hope that once they are reintroduced in their natural habitat, the orchids will attract insects and micro-organisms not seen in South Florida in decades.
They also count on help from local students, to keep an eye on the transplanted orchids in their neighborhoods. A number of plants also will be given away to try to reduce the chance people will steal them off the trees.
The conservation and study of endangered native plants across the United States is coordinated by the Center for Plant Conservation, based in St. Louis, Missouri.