Native Orchids Program
The Native Orchid Conservation Program at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum focuses specifically on conservation of native orchid species of the Minnesota region. There are roughly 200 species of orchids native to the continental United States and Minnesota has nearly a quarter of those species. With 10 of Minnesota’s 48 native orchid species already listed on Minnesota's List of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species, it is imperative to invest in the long-term preservation of this group of plants that can be found in every terrestrial ecosystem type in the state. Orchids can be found throughout Minnesota in native forest, wetlands, and prairie.
Orchid biology is incredibly complex, with each species often requiring specific fungi to be present in the soil for them to grow and persist, as well as pollinator species to reproduce. Seeds are among the smallest in the plant kingdom, often about the size of this comma, or this period. At this size there is very little room for error in germination. Without the nutrient stores that larger seeds have, orchid seeds may not survive if they land in less-than-ideal locations. Given these reasons, orchids are often among the most fragile members of an ecosystem. This makes them useful as a kind of bellwether of ecosystem health but also means that they are tricky to restore to landscape once lost, even the common ones.
The Arboretum is a member of the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC), and the Native Orchid Conservation Program is participating in three major collaborations. NAOCC, headquartered at the Smithsonian, is a partnership among botanic gardens, universities, and non profits around the country to preserve North American orchid species. As a core member of the Midwest group of NAOCC the NOCP's main goal is to create seed banks and the ability to restore populations for all of Minnesota's native orchid species. The Arboretum is also collaborating with researchers at Texas Tech on identification of mycorrhizal associates of orchids, since the Arboretum does not have the capacity for this kind of morphological and genetic work with fungi. Orchid root samples are collected and sent out to Texas Tech to create a catalog of fungi that will be extremely useful in growing and out-planting, and potentially rescuing, our native orchid species. Root samples are also sent to the Smitsonian Environmental Research Center for isolation and banking/propagation of mycorrhizal associates, potentially to be used in future restoration work with our native orchids.
Finally, NOCP works with the Central Botanic Garden in Belarus, focusing on research based on native and listed species in common between Belarus and Minnesota, as well as an orchid (Epipactis helleborine) which, while invasive in Minnesota, is native in Belarus. The goal of this collaborative is to undertake a ground-breaking study of orchid ecology and how universal or regional fungal associates might be. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is committed to a nationwide effort to preserve and educate about these lovely and important species.
Orchids at the Arboretum
If you've been to Minnesota in the summer, consider yourself a Minnesotan, or just have a knack for state emblems, you probably know about our State Flower, the Showy Lady's Slipper (also called the Pink and White Lady's Slipper). It's scientific name is Cypripedium reginae. Reginae is Latin for "queen", a fitting tribute to this orchid, with its white petals and sepals that spread out from its pink, pouch-like labellum. These orchids typically bloom in June and July, requiring moist soil and sunlight. The Showy Lady's Slipper, our tallest native orchid, is widely distributed throughout eastern and central North America in places including wet, dry, sunny, and shady habitats. Though they have finished blooming at the arboretum, the Slipper can be found at the southwest end of the bog walk and in the wildflower garden.
Slow-growing, this clonal orchid may take over 15 years to produce its first flower. But once it blooms, a single plant may have over 200 flowering stems. White-tailed deer readily eat this plant. Illegal collecting, loss of habitat and poor water quality (pollution) have also caused declines in wild populations. The Showy Lady's Slipper has fine hairs that may irritate skin and cause a rash similar to poison ivy.
Currently in bloom at the Arboretum, the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) is found along the Green Heron Boardwalk. This orchid, derived from eastern Canada to the east-central and northeastern United States is also a plant of wet habitats such as bogs, flatwoods, swamps, or sedge meadows. The epithet "psycodes" relates to being butterfly-like, alluding to the shape of the flowers.