Conserving Italy’s Orchids

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From beneath the ground to the tops of trees, in every color of the rainbow, found on all continents except Antarctica, orchids are among the most diverse plant families, with around 30,000 species. I came to Europe to learn about a handful of these fascinating plants, each with unique characteristics and peculiar quirks that attract the scientists who study them.

Although many orchid researchers live for the field trips that take them to all corners of the earth to find populations, document diversity, or collect specimens, I discovered the importance of lab work in Sanremo, Italy, where I assisted Jacopo Calevo, a graduate student, with in vitro propagation of Mediterranean orchids for the LIFEorchids project.orchids grown in a lab in Italy

The goal of LIFEorchids is to propagate nine orchid species for reintroduction of thousands of orchids to two parks in Italy. In addition, the project focuses on restoring orchid habitat and increasing public awareness of land stewardship and orchid conservation.

Though I’d had previous research experiences focusing on orchid ecology, I didn’t know what to expect as I walked into the white-walled lab.

Petri dishes lay on shelves, each holding tiny, delicate, white dots peppered with  fuzz, almost like they had hair with a static problem. These are protocorms–the first life stage of an orchid after germination.

Seeing the potential for conservation these petri dishes held, I began to understand the excitement of orchid propagation.

Working with Jacopo, I made the media, spread the seeds carefully over the black gel, and covered the dishes with tinfoil, tucking them away on a shelf to simulate their time underground. I didn’t get to see these seeds germinate, but I assisted in each life stage of the in vitro process, including hand pollination, assessing seed viability, transferring protocorms into jars and seedlings into new media, and isolating mycorrhizal fungi from root samples.

While we helped dust-like orchid seeds reach their potential in the lab, blossoming orchids sat bathing in the Mediterranean sun, spattered across the mountains just north of Sanremo.

We hiked through the mountains one sunny afternoon to collect root samples from four orchid species. I strolled along the mountains in anticipation, as I didn’t know what we would see–the beginning of the hike didn’t present many orchids.

As we passed by an unassuming meadow that looked much like the surrounding grassland, we found an Ophrys species, then another, and another.bee orchids attract pollinators by mimicking the look of a female bee

Soon, we realized we had stumbled across a large patch of what are commonly known as bee orchids. Although small, these orchids use sexual deception to gain control over male bees. Their labellum, a modified petal, mimics the look of a female bee, attracting males for pollination. The male bee leaves the flower sorely disappointed, but with the orchid’s pollinia, a tiny pollen sac that it will deposit on the next orchid it visits.

After oohing and ahhing over the different species and hybrids we found in the meadow, we moved on, meandering our way along the mountain and through a few more orchid patches.

Now in London, I am learning about conservation genetics and will then travel to Estonia to collect leaf samples that will be used for genetic analyses.

Each place I visit holds a different part of the multifaceted world of orchid conservation, which works to protect these fascinating plants that are scattered across the globe.

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Lydia Soifer '20 is a biology major at Davidson College.

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