Scientist Uses Fire to Preserve Orchids in Mid-Atlantic
In the early 1800s, the orchid fever spread across Europe and rich nobles would pursue to collect different species of these rare flowering plants. However, today several orchid species are now on the verge of extinction with the last ones surviving in only a few sites.
The orchids that are found in the grasslands are threatened by agriculture, development, and intruders. That said, a team from the Nature Conservancy used fire to burn down the wetlands around rare orchids to preserve them from going extinct.
Deborah Landau is a conservation biologist who works with Nature Conservancy and a team of dedicated volunteers and conservationists. She and her team have worked on rare plants for years.
They were researching and developing a new strategy to save the rare orchids from getting extinct after taking a nerve-wracking risk a year before. The team led by Landau set the entire region ablaze in the hope to save the rare Oxypolis canbyi plant also known as Canby’s dropwort.
This specific orchid only grows in Delmarva Bay in Maryland, a region with temporary wetlands that are moist in the fall and winter and dry during summer and spring.
I’ve spent many years opening this wetland back up and the population increased, but it was still struggling.
Historically, natural fires would sweep across the marshes to provide space for the flowering plants to thrive. However, the misconception with the role of fire in the environment, given the history of wildfire disasters across the world, the flames are smothered too early.
It took years of planning for a 45-minute burn. She and her team had to wait for nine months and to their surprise, the plants were back and bloomed, which indicated that the fire has done its job. Before the burn, there were just 3 plants left but as of 2021, there are around 3,000 Oxypolis canbyi plants. Landau’s calculated risk saved the Canby’s dropwort from getting extinct.
Like the Canby’s dropwort, suppression of natural fires has led to encroachment by woody plants, hindering their existence. Developmental projects, intervention by poachers, and watershed systems have made their survival slim. Landau’s passion for orchids and her dedicated work fights every day against the world that’s pushing the orchids to the brink of extinction.