Native Orchids -
The Need For Conservation
By: Bud Ewacha

Although wild orchids are recognized internationally as an endangered species and trade is prohibited, few people realize how threatened these wild plants really are.

For the past 20 years I have been doing field studies and research on the 39 species of native orchids in Manitoba. Support for my work has been in the form of permits to transplant and preserve native orchids.  During this time I have watched their numbers drastically decline for a number of reasons.  Plants of the Lady's-Slipper (Cypripedium) variety have suffered from problems relating to fertilization for the past 15 years.  This year, for example, Showy Lady's Slippers (C. reginae) have no seed pods at all in many areas of the province.  They have also suffered from insect damage.  Even when they were pollinated in the field and then covered with netting, they would still end up with insects in the seed pod.  The Moccasin Flower (C. acaule), as well, is showing very few fertilized seed pods and many of the ones that are present have disease or insect damage.  Since 1982 a fungus has appeared on many of the Moccasin Flowers.  Attempts to identify it have been unsuccessful as have attempts to identify the insect causing damage to the seed pods of these plants.  The rare Small White Lady's-Slipper (C. candidum), is also showing insect damage.

Fertilization problems are most certainly related to a lack of natural pollinators because those that I have pollinated in the wild developed normal pods.  The lack of pollinators is possibly due to aerial spraying of crops and forests but there may be other factors at play as well.

We are presently doing research in the Gull Lake Wetlands and the Belair, Sandilands and Agassiz Forest Preserves of Manitoba, but there is a real need to expand these field studies to other areas of the province.  Complete understanding of the reasons for the increased incidence of disease and insect predation is lacking.  As well, we are presently working to identify the effects of selective cutting in the Sandilands Forest Preserve.

Rare and delicate orchids such as Arethusa (Arethusa bulbosa) are demonstrating problems with root propagation.  New bulbs fail to form and many of the plants are dying after only one year.  This is particularly noticeable in the Gull Lake Wetlands.  Members of Native Orchid Conservation Inc. and students from the University of Winnipeg are working with me at present doing field studies on the promotion of pollination and in attempts to grow native orchids from seed.  This work is expensive, painstaking and slow, but is being done with a view to possible re-introduction of wild orchids into suitable areas.

Field research has produced some rather interesting results.  I found that it was possible to determine the age of Lady's-Slippers (Cypripediums) by counting the growth rings on the rhizomes and allowing an average of five years for seedling growth.  Using this technique I was able to determine that a large number of Yellow Lady's-Slippers (C. calceolus var. parvifiorum) germinated over a large area including Belair, Sandilands and Agassiz Forest Preserves and Gull Lake, 30 years ago. It would be interesting to see whether any special climactic conditions were present during this time.  We all remember 1966 as the year of the great blizzard and subsequent flooding but was there more to it?  Some orchids can grow to be very old.  We know of one that has been grown successfully for the past 50 years.

The Yellow Lady's-Slippers found growing in a spruce-poplar complex, were monitored over a 15 year period. During this time the plants grew single stems only.  Two plants were removed and planted in a location with more light.  Within four years, one plant produced five stems while the second plant had six.  I have been consistently able to transplant orchids with excellent survival rates.

Another small experiment was conducted in 1983 in an area slated for clear-cut logging in Belair Forest Preserve.  Over an eight week period in July and August two plants were removed each week and placed in a similar but safe habitat.  The plants were watered weekly during this period except for the last two plants which received only one watering at the time of transplanting.  The following spring, only two plants had died - the two from the final transplanting, which had received only a single watering.  The conclusion was that native orchids could be successfully transplanted during the peak growing season, after flowering had occurred, if adequate moisture was available.

Orchids, more than any other plant species, are dependent on their surroundings.  Their entire ecosystem must be preserved if we want to save these plants. Drainage of wetlands and clear cuffing of forests is doing tremendous harm to our native orchids.  Because of this, I have, along with other interested individuals, started to actively publicize the plight of our native orchids and to enlist the help of the general public to save our wetlands.  This year we formed Native Orchid Conservation Inc.  I hope after reading this article, that some readers might like to join us.

In our rush to conserve other more visible and familiar wild plants, let us not overlook the rare and beautiful wild orchids.  Their exotic and mysterious charms fill our bogs and forests with enchantment but they may also play a part in our environment that we are unaware of as yet.  More than that, they are part of our heritage.  Let us work to keep them with us forever!

Bud Ewacha is the president of Native Orchid Conservation Inc.  Raised in rural Manitoba, he developed a love of wild plants at an early age and began working with orchids in 1975 when he joined the Manitoba Orchid Society.  Over the past 20 years he has done research and conducted field studies in pollination and propagation of native orchids.  Currently he is working hard to conserve these rare plants for the future.

Editor's Note: Other articles by Bud Ewacha have been published in Blue Jay and in The Canadian Orchid Journal.  For further information please contact the author at (204)253-4741.

This article appeared in the 1999 issue of The Prairie Garden and appears courtesy of that publication.