Wetland Conservation:

Using the Orchid to Get the Public Involved

By: Doris Ames


Wetland conservation is an important environmental issue in the Province of Manitoba in Canada. Since the early 1900's, Manitoba has lost approximately 70% of our wetlands, along with the unusual plants and animals living in them, as a result of agricultural and housing development. This article documents the efforts of Native Orchid Conservation Inc.(NOCI) to save the species-rich calcareous Gull Lake Wetlands, by using native orchids to capture the interest of the general public.


The Gull Lake Wetlands, a calcareous fen, located in Section 34 Township 16 Range 7E in the Province of Manitoba, Canada, is a topographically raised bog with ponds, wet troughs or flarks and a marginal rich fen. A calcareous fen is a peatland characterized by a high water table with slow internal drainage by seepage down very gradual slopes. This slow moving groundwater is enriched by nutrients from upslope materials, notably calcium and magnesium, and thus fens are more mineral rich and less acid than bogs [Johnson and others 1995]. The pH of the groundwater in this fen is approximately 7.0 to 7.5. Many fens contain rare plants tolerant of associated calcium carbonate deposits. Plants in these fens are very sensitive to changes in hydrology that affect the rate of groundwater discharge. Once this wetland is altered, the vegetation may not recover even if water levels are restored [Almendinger and others 1998].

The Gull Lake wetlands support more than 350 vascular plant species including 28 native orchid species and eight species of insectivorous plants. Altogether, twenty-three species of rare plants have been found in the fen. Species rankings for the rare plants were obtained from the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre (MBCDC). The MBCDC systematically collects and distributes information about Manitoba's plants and animal species and plant environments. They use the Nature Conservancy's plant rarity ranking. The MBCDC is part of the National Heritage Network of Canada. Canada does not have a wetland plant indicator status scheme so the wetland indicator status for the native orchids refers to a type of wetland classification used in the U.S.A. Species-rich calcareous fens are themselves considered rare in North America and deserving of protection in adjacent areas to the south of Manitoba (e.g.Minnesota) [Jones and others 1999].


In 1992, a proposal to pump water from this wetland area to raise the level of a recreational lake nearby was submitted to the provincial government and feasability studies were undertaken. Botanists and other scientists familiar with wetland ecology informed us that this plan, if implemented, would have a negative effect on the rare native flora and possibly the fauna located in the Gull Lake wetlands [Ewacha 1999].


Realizing quick action was needed, several concerned individuals formed Native Orchid Conservation Incorporated (NOCI), in order to protect these wetlands. NOCI obtained non-profit charity status to make it easier to get donations to help us with our work

From the beginning, NOCI sought the help of the general public. NOCI members realized that this is the most effective way to get the cooperation of politicians in passing the necessary legislation, to protect the environment. NOCI also asked and obtained letters of support from some other conservation organizations such as Nature Saskatchewan and Ducks Unlimited. NOCI notified all orchid societies and conservation organizations in Canada about the threat to this wetland.


Next we prepared a portable 4-panel display with photographs, and textual material about, the fen and the rare plants that occur there and the need for its conservation and protection [Photo 1]. NOCI took the display around to horticultural societies, shopping centres, schools and conferences. It became readily apparent that most people have no knowledge of wetlands other than that they might be unpleasant, mosquito ridden, and dangerous places! To counteract this narrow view, NOCI conducted field trips for our members, to bogs and fens in the area, with a special emphasis on the Gull Lake Wetlands. We advertised these trips as a good way to see native orchids of all kinds. We limited the number of people on these field trips to protect this fragile environment and to make these trips more personalized and interesting to the participants. NOCI did not want these trips to be just a walk through, with 20 people behind an interpreter. Field trip leaders were NOCI members with a great deal of experience in the field, enthusiastic and with good people skills. The response to these trips was overwhelming. NOCI conducted 11 field trips in the summer of 2000. More than 100 people took part in these field trips. The focus was kept on the beautiful native orchids found in Manitoba's bogs and fens, in order to capture the participant's interest and to educate them. Field trip leaders observed that people who originally came out to see native orchids, quickly became interested and concerned about other wetland plants as well.


Next NOCI undertook several projects involving the conservation of wetland plants, particularly native orchids. One is a five year project funded by the Manitoba Department of Sustainable Development to assess the effects of selective cutting on the growth of native orchids, in an area of the Sandilands Forest Reserve in Manitoba. Sustainable development is an approach to daily decision making that integrates probable consequences to the environment, economy, human health and social well being. The Manitoba Department of Sustainable Development funds projects that provide data on the environment helpful to the decision making process of wetland conservation.

Our selective cutting area in the Sandilands Forest reserve contains 13 species of native orchids growing in a climax cedar forest. We are now doing yearly measurements of light levels, height and diameter of trees, species and number of plants; and, with native orchids, number that flower, number of leaves, and number of seedpods. These measurements will be done over a five year period to assess the effects of selective cutting on understory growth. NOCI members are encouraged to participate in this study by taking part in recording the number of orchids, light levels, and photography in the test plots. Those that do, quickly become strong advocates of wetland conservation. We are also doing pollination studies and pathology in cypripediums studies in the Gull Lake Wetlands because we need to protect the plants as well as the wetlands and work for their conservation on several levels.


We have found during the past two years that the best way to preserve and promote the conservation of wetlands is to get the public involved. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The first method, of course, involves a careful assessment and gathering of biological data on the area. This is the traditional method of the scientist and is vitally important to the success of the project. However, psychology and an understanding of some of the ways people relate to the natural world can also be helpful in capturing the attention and support of the general public. One of the ways this can be done is by focusing on a particularly beautiful or exotic part of the ecosystem such as native orchids [Photos 2,3,4,5,6]. (This idea is not new and has been used with great effectiveness for instance, to preserve Arctic ecosystems by using the cute baby seal and the polar bear.) This serves as "the hook" to attract people. Second, take them on field trips. Third, engage people in working on research projects in the field, instead of being passive observers. Their personal involvement will help to build their commitment to conservation goals. While working on these projects, the beauty of the environment will capture their hearts, engage their minds and start or increase their conservation activity. Since each person goes on to influence many others, soon a large block of conservation minded citizens is actively supporting your preservation goals. Third, write articles about your focus plant or animal and your conservation work in order to reach a larger audience. We have had people write us letters full of encouragement and advice from all over the world.


The wetland conservation approach outlined in this article works because NOCI has been successful in having several other areas in the province set aside from clear cutting. These areas contain orchids and other rare native plants. As a result of our efforts including lobbying, a proposal to declare a large portion of the Gull Lake Wetlands an ecological reserve is now before the Minister of Conservation. NOCI members and other members of the general public are behind this idea. Any plans to drain this wetland are on indefinite hold. Nature Saskatchewan and Ducks Unlimited have expressed an interest in helping us conserve this wetland. The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources is willing to try to secure funding for some aspects of the project especially boardwalks. Installation of boardwalks is especially important in order to provide access while protecting the fragile environment. Suggestions will be sought from stakeholders as to the best use of this wetlands for education, teaching and enjoyment. NOCI now has over 200 members, is working on several other conservation projects, and is on the way to becoming a more effective wetland conservation group. The beautiful native orchids made it all possible.


NOCI members plan to continue to work for the conservation of the Gull Lake wetlands. As well we intend to conduct botanical surveys in other wetlands in the province of Manitoba to enhance the data base on these plants. No general botanical survey has been conducted in the province since Scoggan in 1957, and available data is very out of date. We feel sure we will find more species of native orchids and other rare plants and we intend to publicize our results and secure the protection of these plants. We will continue to carry out projects relating to the conservation of orchids and other rare and endangered plants in Manitoba.

For further information on all our projects and our organization, you can view our website at www.nativeorchid.com   or contact us by mail at 35 St.Michael Road,Winnipeg,MB R2M2K7 Canada   or by fax at (204)253-7241.


Almendinger, J.E. and J.H. Leete. 1998. Peat Characteristics and Groundwater geochemistry of Calcareous Fens in the Minnesota River Basin. USA Biochemistry 43:17-41.

Ewacha, Bud. 1999. Gull Lake Wetlands Botanical Survey - Final Report.

Johnson, D., L. Kershaw, A. MacKinnon and J. Pojar. 1995. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton AB. 392 pages.

Jones, Geoff B, Jason Greenall and Elizabeth Punter. 1999. A Preliminary Vegetation Survey of the Gull Lake Wetlands Area - Report No. 99-04. Terrestrial Quality Management Section, Manitoba Department of the Environment, Winnipeg.

Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. 1998. Species Ranking Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. Wildlife Branch, Manitoba Natural Resources, Winnipeg MB. 9pp.

Manitoba Environment (Water Quality Management Section). 1996. The Manitoba Clean Water Guide. Winnipeg MB. 64pp.

Scoggan, H.J. 1957. Flora of Manitoba. National Museum of Canada Bulletin No.140.

White, D.J. and Karen Johnson. 1980. The Rare Vascular Plants of Manitoba - Syllogeus 27. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa.


Scientific Name Common Name
Arethusa bulbosa L. Dragon's Mouth Orchid
Calopogon pulchellus (Salisb.) R. Br. Swamp-pink; Grass-pink
Carex gracillima Schwein. Slender Sedge
Carex sterilis Willd. Sterile Sedge
Ceanothus herbaceus Raf. New Jersey Tea
Cladium mariscoides (Muhl.) Torr. Twig Rush
Cypripedium arietinum R.BR. Ram's-head Lady's-slipper
Drosera anglica Huds. Oblong-leaved Sundew
Drosera linearis Goldie Slender-leaved Sundew
Goodyera tesselata Lodd.. Tesselated Rattlesnake Plantain
Malaxis monophyllus (L.) Sw. White Adder's-mouth
*Malaxis paludosa (L.) Sw. Bog Adder's-mouth
Malaxis unifolia Michx. Green Adder's-mouth
Platanthera hookeri (Torr.) Lindl. Hooker's Orchid
Pogonia ophioglossoides (L.) Ker Rose Pogonia
Potentilla gracilis Dougl. Graceful Cinquefoil
Primula egaliksensis Wormsk. Greenland Primrose
Pyrola rotundifolia L. Round-leaved Wintergreen
Rhynchospora alba (L.) Vahl. White Beak-rush
Rhynchospora capillacea Torr. Slender Beak-rush
Solidago uliginosa Nutt. Marsh Goldenrod
Utricularia cornuta Michx. Horned Bladderwort

* nationally rare species

Also observed was: Chara sp., a rare alga which grows in wet areas high in calcium and magnesium.


Scientific Name Rare1 Common Name Wetland Indicator Status2
Amerorchis rotundifolia (Banks) Hulten Small Round-leaved Orchid Not listed
Arethusa bulbosa L. xDragon's Mouth Orchid OBL
Calopogon pulchellus (Salisb.) R.Br. xSwamp-pink; Grass-pink Not listed
Calypso bulbosa ( L.) Oakes Fairy or Venus-slipper FACU, FACW
Coeloglossum viride Hartman Long-bracted Orchid FACU, FACW
Corallorhiza maculata Raf. Spotted Coralroot UPL, FACU
Corallorhiza striata Lindl. Striped Coralroot UPL, FACU+
Corallorhiza trifida Chat. Early Coralroot FAC, FACW
Cypripedium acaule Ait. Moccasin Flower; Pink/Stemless L-s FACU-, FACW
Cypripedium arietinum R.Br. xRam's-head Lady's-slipper FACW+
Cypripedium calceolus L. var.parviflorum (Salisb.) Fern. Small Yellow Lady's-slipper FAC-, FACW
Cypripedium calceolus L. var.pubescens (Willd.) Correll Large Yellow Lady's-slipper FACU, FACW
Cypripedium reginae Walt. Showy Lady's-slipper FAC-, FACW
Goodyera repens (L.) R.Br. Fern. Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain UPL, FAC
Goodyera tesselata Lodd.. xTesselated Rattlesnake PlantainFACU-, FACU
Liparis loeselii (L.) Richard Loesel's Twayblade FACU-, FACU
Listera cordata (L.) R.Br. Heart-leaved Twayblade FACU, FACW+
Malaxis monophyllus (L.) Sw. xWhite Adder's-mouth Not listed
Malaxis paludosa (L.) Sw. xBog Adder's-mouth OBL
Malaxis unifolia Michx. xGreen Adder's-mouth FAC, FAC+
Platanthera dilitata (Pursh) Lindl. ex Beck Tall Leafy White OrchidFACW, FACW+
Platanthera hookeri (Torr.) Lindl. xHooker's Orchid FAC, FAC+
Platanthera hyperborea Lindley Tall Leafy Green Orchid FACW, FACW+
Platanthera obtusata Lindley Blunt Leaf Orchid FACW
Platanthera orbiculata (Pursh) Lindley Large Round-Leaf Orchid FACU, FAC
Pogonia ophioglossoides (L.) Ker xRose Pogonia OBL
Spiranthes lacera Raf. Slender Ladies'-tresses FACU-, FAC+
Spiranthes romanzoffiana Cham. Hooded Ladies'-tresses FACW, OBL

1 Provincially rare species ranking by the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre.

2 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1997 National Wetlands Inventory wetland indicator status as follows:
OBL - only in wetlands (more than 99% of occurances are in wetlands);
FACW - usually in wetlands (67%-99% of occurances are in wetlands);
FAC - in both wetlands and non-wetlands (34%-66% of occurances are in wetlands);
FACU - usually in non-wetlands (1%-33% of occurances are in wetlands);
UPL - only in non-wetlands (less than 1% of occurances are in wetlands).

Figure 1. The Gull Lake Wetlands in the province of Manitoba, approximately 50 miles northeast of Winnipeg.
(See box insert below Lake Winnipeg.)

Photo 1. This educational display plays an important part in NOCI's efforts to get the public involved.
The display tells the story of the orchid, and provides the participant with all the information needed
to become actively involved with the NOCI organization.

Photo 2. Yellow Lady's-Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

Photo 3. Large Round-leaf Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)

Photo 4. Ram's-head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

Photo 5. Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa)

Photo 6. Showy Lady's-Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)


Doris E. Ames is Vice President of Native Orchid Conservation Inc. and has written widely on native orchids and wetland conservation.

This article appeared in the Wetland Journal, Vol.13 Number 2, Spring 2001.