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Saving a threatened orchid community in Wisconsin

Big opportunities for a tiny flower

by Melissa Curran

If all goes as planned, a rolling, windswept Midwest nature preserve could become the nexus of native orchid restoration efforts in eastern North America.

Since 2012, I’ve been leading a community focused research project to reintroduce native terrestrial orchid species to a 1,050 acre State Natural Area known as The Ridges Sanctuary (The Ridges) in the Door County eco‑region of northeastern Wisconsin.

The Ridges is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in Wisconsin and was once known to contain at least 25 species of native orchids. These historically abundant orchid populations have significantly declined in recent decades due to loss of habitat, habitat changes, unauthorized collection and predation (by deer). As a result, there is an urgent need for conservation efforts to protect existing populations and to reintroduce this exotic and graceful flower to the site.

As the project developer and manager, I work closely with The Ridges staff, as well as experts at the Smithsonian Institution, to develop the technical project requirements, identify research needs, design project tasks, keep the project moving forward and coordinate efforts among all the project partners. Our mission began with a two year planning and germination period during which hundreds of seeds were collected and grown under controlled laboratory conditions. In nature, orchid seedlings form a bond with soil fungi in order to grow. However, by using controlled laboratory procedures, we are able to bypass the need to have fungi present after germination. By using this technique, we are able to produce hundreds of seedlings for reintroductions back into nature.

Back “in” home soil
In the spring, we reached a significant project milestone; it was time to bring these flowers home. During a day long effort, I guided a group of 35 Stantec staff members and eager community volunteers to complete the first ever outplanting event for the Wisconsin State-Threatened ram’s-head lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium arietinum) orchid. Together, we installed more than 1,100 delicate seedlings.

This project is the first of its kind for Stantec and the larger research community. Orchid-specific research projects where reintroductions are attempted are generally small in size and community engagement is not typically solicited. The project we’ve developed at The Ridges will include multiple species of native orchids over a long period of time, thereby greatly enhancing what we know about native orchid germination and establishment. Future tasks will include the outplanting of additional orchid species to the Ridges and establishing a plant nursery on-site to care for seedlings prior to outplanting.

As summer progresses, I’ve been evaluating our ram’s-head lady’s-slipper orchid seedlings. Seedlings were planted in 11 different locations representing differences in slope, moisture, canopy cover and herbaceous competition. Their survivability in these 11 different locations ranges from 21% to 61%.  I have learned a lot about the conditions under which seedlings perform the best and will implement what I have learned on future outplantings.

It takes a village
While all involved are pleased with our progress, much more remains to be done. Fortunately, support continues to come from many quarters. I’ve been engaged by interested colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution and consult with their botanists on a regular basis. In addition, some of our research has been supported by Stantec’s Research & Development Fund, an indication of the company’s support for the long-term resiliency of our natural resources.

Of course, much credit also goes to the Ridges staff for their foresight, support and dedication and to a small army of volunteer gardeners—colleagues and community alike. This dedication was recently recognized when the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Reseach Center (SERC) nominated orchid restoration for its annual Summer Showdown voting competition, citing it as the project which best exemplified work supported by their team.

Melissa is an environmental scientists and botanist in our Green Bay, Wisconsin office. 

Melissa in the field

Besides being beautiful and cunning, orchids are red flags for extinction. When they vanish, it's a sign forests and wetlands are in danger as well.

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center 

Ram's-head Lady's-slipper Orchid

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