Feb 14

A research team from London’s Kew Gardens is coordinating the Orchid Seed Stores for Sustainable Use (OSSSU) project, a Darwin Initiative project designed to establish orchid seed banking around the world.

With around 25,000 species currently known to science, orchids belong to one of the largest, most diverse and most beautiful families of flowering plants. However, it is estimated that close to a quarter of these extraordinary species are at risk of extinction.

The OSSSU project will see scientists from countries around the world contribute to a five-year, £2 million programme to protect at least 2,000 orchid species by 2015.

Photo of Paphiopedilum tigrinum in flower

Paphiopedilum tigrinum

British scientists leading efforts to set up the network

Philip Seaton, the OSSSU project manager based at the Seed Conservation Department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said that orchids provide an important warning of ecosystems in crisis.

“Orchids are indicator species: if forests are in trouble then orchids will be one of the first things to go.”

Photo of Paphiopedilum fowliei in flower

Paphiopedilum fowliei in flower

The OSSSU project currently focuses on collecting seeds from orchid hot spots in the Asian and the Central and South American regions. Work initially began in 2007, after a grant was given by the UK government to develop seed banks in biodiversity hotspots.

Countries such as Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, China, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have already agreed plans to conserve seeds. The OSSSU network now aims to grow to 30 countries, with India, the USA, Italy, Canada, Kenya and Cameroon all poised to come on board.

Saving the species

Orchid seeds are tiny, and because of their microscopic size they do not store the same amount of food reserves as most other plant species. Because of this, orchids have developed an unusual relationship with certain types of fungi in the wild, as they provide the necessary nutrients required for the orchid seed to germinate.

The drive to protect orchids and store their seeds is an insurance policy against growing threats of deforestation and climate change.

Orchid seeds that are collected during the project will be dried and stored in freezers at -20˚C. This process allows the tiny seeds to be stored for many decades without killing the embryo, enabling scientists to use them in the future. Scientists are also able to grow orchids in the lab by germinating the seeds on a nutrient-containing gel, which for most species, eliminates the requirement of the fungus.

Teams of researchers working on the project will be able to use some of the stored seeds to gain a better understanding of different orchid species. They will be able to track the rates at which different species germinate and grow, and can monitor seeds for signs of deterioration. There are also plans to collect samples of the pollen and fungi that the individual species need to flower in the wild.

Photo of Darwins orchid

Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale

According to Professor Hugh Pritchard, OSSSU’s project leader based at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, “This project is about helping to establish a network of orchid seed banks around the world in an attempt to save the species.”

Orchids account for almost one in eight of the world’s flowering plants, and with a growing number of these species being threatened with extinction it is becoming increasingly important to act now to save this fascinating group of plants.

Find out more about the OSSSU project.

Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website.

Explore more photos of orchids on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author