Jonathan Kendon from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (blue jacket and backpack), studies a clump of Angraecum orchids three staff members from Kew’s Madagascar Conservation Centre. Photo courtesy of Andy Stice.

Illinois College helps conserve rare orchids in Madagascar

May 26, 2013 at 12:22 PM

JACKSONVILLE — Endangered orchids grow slowly, like they have all the time in the world.

Illinois College biology professor Larry Zettler knows they don’t.

Still recovering from jet lag, Zettler and student Korrie Edwards wasted no time gearing up to grow new seedlings barely a day after Zettler returned from Madagascar, where he collected roots and seeds of rare orchids.

For two weeks this spring, Zettler and lab manager Andy Stice traveled in the island nation with colleagues from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, England.

Together, they are working on a five-year plan to recover rare orchids found in Madagascar and eventually involve citizens there in the flowers’ care and protection.

“Our long-term vision is to recover them from the brink of extinction (a lot of the orchids in that part of the country are critically rare) but also to infuse these growing techniques to help the people earn an income and help people’s lives there,” Zettler said.

Researchers are particularly interested in the genus angraecum, showy white orchids with commercial appeal. If people are able to cultivate the orchids, it should help take the pressure off wild populations.

“By doing that, you are keeping poaching to a minimum,” he said. “People won’t have to go out in the countryside to collect and sell the orchids on the open markets.”

Tough conditions

Madagascar is far from the lush jungle paradise many people imagine. Instead, it is a poor country of 22 million people that has lost most of its forests.

“It was rough,” Zettler said. “I’ve traveled a lot, and this was the least-developed country of all.”

The delegation of nine traveled out into the field in two SUVs.

“The roads were unbelievably bad outside of town,” Zettler said. “We’re talking potholes as deep as my torso. It took two hours or half a day just to get out there.”

Once in the countryside, the researchers saw locust swarms and fires set by farmers to drive them away. They also saw pine trees stripped of limbs for firewood.

“All that remains are little tufts of evergreen at the top,” Zettler said. “They had pulled off all the lower branches for cooking.

“It was pretty barren. I think 90 percent of the forests have been cleared, exposing clay soils that they use to make bricks for buildings. There was not much wood left.”

And growing in this stressed landscape were orchids, some even on rocky outcrops in full sun.

“These beautiful white orchids were right there on the bare rocks,” Zettler said.

An Angraecum rutenbergianum orchid is found growing in a rocky habitat in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Andy Stice.

Other species that grow on trees, known as epiphytic orchids, were found along streams where some forest remains.

He said dozens of species of orchids — all rare — grow in central Madagascar.

Zettler said a local guide, whose job it is to protect the country’s natural resources, led them to places where orchids grow.

“They pay a conservationist in each village,” Zettler said. “He is the guide, and he is looking after the reserve. He has a special, bright green shirt and a badge, and he is very proud of his role.”

World travelers

To get the orchid seeds and pieces of roots back to Jacksonville, Zettler had to have permits from CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

To avoid accidentally introducing a non-native organism, strict rules must be followed and plant material must be handled only in a special lab.

“All this work has to be carried out in this room,” Zettler said. “We have to destroy everything that leaves that room unless we package it a certain way.”

Edwards, a sophomore, is trying to culture and grow fungi found on the plant roots to determine which fungus is the one the orchids need to survive. Orchids consume a specific type of fungus that grows on their roots. Without it, the plants may take three years to get as big as a bean sprout. Fungi that are associated with plant roots are known as mycorrhizal.

Illinois College sophomore Korrie Edwards shows a dish of orchid seedlings that are about one year old. Orchids grow very slowly without a special fungus in the soil that is consumed by the plant. Photo by Chris Young.

This isn’t Zettler’s first attempt at growing critically endangered orchids. For years, he and his students at Illinois College have been involved in growing and conserving orchids around the United States — from Illinois to Florida to Hawaii — and in other parts of the world, too.

In August, Zettler is planning a trip to Cuba to search for rare orchids there.

But for now, there is a lot of work to do. Edwards pulls out a petri dish with tiny seedlings.

“These are the seedlings we started to grow last year. They are doing pretty well so far, said Edwards, who is part of a team of students Zettler selects to work on orchid recovery projects.

In a few days, she is heading to Florida to work on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to help grow orchids there.

Zettler said he thinks Edwards would be a good candidate for the next trip to Madagascar.

“Now that I’ve gone, I have a better sense of who to take,” he said. “You have to be physically and mentally tough.”

Zettler said the five-year goal is not only to stabilize populations in the wild, but also to develop protocols so the orchids can be grown in nurseries.

“It’s not just a research project,” he said. “We want to help people as well.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528. Follow him at