Kew's work with orchids
In nature most orchids form a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) association with fungi in order to help the plant obtain nutrients. This association is essential for the germination of orchid seeds that lack their own internal food supplies (endosperm). The Sainsbury Orchid Conservation Project was established at Kew to investigate techniques for germination of temperate terrestrial orchids in the laboratory using fungi.
Many tropical epiphytic and terrestrial orchids are grown from seed in vitro at Kew. The media on which the seeds grow contains nutrients to sustain the seedling and so a mycorrhizal fungus is not needed, it is therefore called asymbiotic. With good quality fresh seed, very high levels of germination can be achieved in vitro. This allows thousands of seedlings to be produced from a single capsule.
Working in collaboration with the Tsimbazaz Botanical and Zoological Park, seed was collected from endangered species such as Bulbophyllum elliotii and plants returned to Madagascar to help support dwindling populations. The laboratory continues this support through the Threatened Plants of Madagascar Appeal.
Kew is a lead partner in several of the UK Species Action Plans for endangered orchids such as that for the Fen orchid (Liparis loeselii) and the Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) which is one of the UK’s rarest orchids. In collaboration with English Nature, seedlings of the Lady’s slipper orchid have now been reintroduced and the first flowering was reported in 2000. Laboratory grown seedlings of the Fen orchid have also been planted in the wild.