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Why native Missouri orchids are a 'problem child' for conservation efforts

Rachel Helmich, coordinator for micropropagation at the Missouri Botanic Garden, sterilizes lab utensils in a research lab on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Rachel Helmich, coordinator for micropropagation at the Missouri Botanic Garden, sterilizes lab utensils in a research lab on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.

The finicky plants are threatened by habitat loss and climate change, but as the Missouri Botanical Garden works to conserve them, scientists are learning the difficulties of growing native orchids in a lab.

Rachel Helmich’s lab at the Missouri Botanical Garden is not exactly typical. It’s carpeted, there’s no sink, and the counters have Instant Pots on them.

“They actually work great,” said Helmich, micropropagation coordinator. “I can sterilize everything in there. They've never broken down.”

While visitors take in the international, tropical drama of the annual orchid show downstairs, Helmich spends her time upstairs trying to get native Missouri orchids to grow. Lighted shelves in this lab are full of what look like plastic takeout containers, each with small green shoots of plants growing in a jelly-like substance.

Seedlings of Calopogon oklahomensis are sealed in a container in a research lab on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Seedlings of Calopogon oklahomensis are sealed in a container in a research lab on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.

Some of the plants here might be familiar, like yellow lady’s slipper. Others, like the eastern prairie fringed orchid, are threatened.

Climate change, habitat loss and pollinator loss are just some of the factors that are threatening orchids around the world. Almost half of all known orchids are considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

Orchids are an especially interesting conservation challenge, Helmich said, because they are finicky. Their tiny seeds look like dust, and they rely on symbiotic relationships with specific fungi, sometimes switching fungus types as they grow. But those same particularities also make them important for broader conservation efforts.

“They act as a canary in the coal mine, because they are so sensitive to changes within their environment,” Helmich said. “If you've noticed that, ‘Oh, I haven't seen this in years,’ that's telling you something has changed in their soil or something has changed with their pollinator.”

The micropropagation lab where Helmich works is an example of increased conservation efforts at the garden in recent years. The garden also has a seed bank with more than 2,400 dormant seeds, but orchids don’t store well. That’s why the tissue cultures in this lab are important, said Rebecca Sucher, senior manager of living collections.

Rebecca Sucher, senior manager of living collections at the Missouri Botanic Garden, poses for a portrait in the orchid range on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Rebecca Sucher, senior manager of living collections at the Missouri Botanic Garden, poses for a portrait in the orchid range on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the Missouri Botanic Garden in Shaw. The lab is working to preserve orchids native to Missouri.

“This is really the last place that we want to take a species because this means it's a problem child, basically,” Sucher said. “Because this is a lot of work.”

Walking through the ornate flowers in the orchid show, Helmich said her work with native orchids has given her a new appreciation for beauty. She hopes more people might begin to see plants in a similar light.

“The more that we start throwing in the different styles, the more that we can start opening people's minds up,” Helmich said. “There's so many different types of beauty. No beauty is wrong.”

Helmich hopes that one day a Missouri native orchid will be featured in the annual show.

“I would love to see it,” she said. “I think it can happen. It'll just take planning work and a team of people getting together to make it happen.”

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kate Grumke reports on the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media. Email Kate at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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