Everything's Coming Up Orchids

Project aims to catalog and conserve Minnesota's native orchid species

As the curator of endangered plants at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, David Remucal is used to dealing with rare native plants. But his newest project has him working with one of the most popular and widely known species in the world—orchids.

Thanks to a new research grant from the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), for the next two years Remucal will be out collecting seeds from Minnesota’s wild orchid populations to create a conservation bank of native orchid species and then attempting to propagate them back at the Arboretum.

While orchids have long been a favorite of floral enthusiasts, few realize how many orchids exist and how many of them can be found in Minnesota. 

David Remucal“Of the roughly 200 species of orchid in the continental United States, Minnesota alone has 48 or 49 native species,” explains Remucal. One may no longer exist in the state as it has not been seen for several years.

Significantly, wild orchids grow in all the state’s native biomes, but each species has its own requirements. While some are common and easy to find, others may only grow for a short period in specific conditions and others may be difficult to distinguish from their surrounding plants.

“Twenty percent of Minnesota’s native orchids are on the rare or endangered list,” says Remucal. “But even those that aren’t considered endangered can be hard to locate as they are not a dominant species in the state.”

orchidThe unique combination of their rareness, mixed with their popularity, makes them an ideal project for Remucal, who joined the Arboretum about three years ago. While long-term the main goal of the project is conservation, he hopes this research will lead to increased permanent native orchid installations on the Arboretum grounds and in its conservatory for the public to enjoy and learn about these beautiful and native flowers.

The project has three key components: seed banking, propagation and education. During this initial three-year phase of the project, Remucal is focusing on banking and successfully propagating and cultivating a minimum of 15 selected species. Results from the first year are promising, as seeds from 24 species were collected and banked for further research. Additionally, early success in propagating a few species from seed has Remucal cautiously optimistic about meeting his goals by the June 2018 deadline.

“While tracking some of these species down can be a challenge in and of itself, the propagation is especially challenging,” explains Remucal. “Each species is unique and we need to develop an understanding of how best to grow each of them individually.”

In time, Remucal hopes to refine their successful techniques to use on additional species and, ultimately, to increase survivability and decrease germination times. Notably, more information is also needed on the long-term effects of banking orchid seeds. New freezers at the Arboretum are assisting with this process but little data exists on how long orchid seeds can be stored and remain viable.

Getting the project off the ground will help bring public awareness to long-term conservation efforts at the arboretum, and to the importance of ensuring future generations of Minnesotans can enjoy the plants.

—Michelle Gustafson