Save the orchids

A Riveredge team led by Melissa Curran (above) is working to bring back a native population of orchids, not just for their beauty, but for all the good they do for the environment Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

“Save the orchids” isn’t a rallying cry emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers, but a group at Riveredge Nature Center would be just fine with it if it were.

Riveredge’s first executive director,  Andy Larsen, was greeted with five different kinds of native orchids when he came to the nature preserve along of Highway Y in the Town of Saukville decades ago.

With the plants now in threatened status, a small team is leading the charge to “bring back Andy’s orchids,” Riveredge Land Manager Matt Smith said.

The team is working on two kinds of orchids, the white lady’s slipper and the pink lady’s slipper, and is dedicated to figuring out what makes them tick — the soil type, water quality and type of habitat they like.

“It raises the bar of the entire ecological area,” Smith said.

“Whoever can crack this code has an advantage of getting a healthy ecosystem.”

Melissa Curran, an environmental scientist and botanist who works for Stantec Consulting Services of Mequon, has been leading the orchids initiative at Riveredge the past four years with a grant from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program.

“For me, I consider them to be a flagship species of communities,” she said.

Orchids’ relationships with pollinators and fungi and soil, she said, are poorly understood yet important.

“We can use that to gauge ecological health,” she said.

Curran is from Princeton, Wis., and earned a forest ecology degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked with orchids for years, starting with the Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in 2012.

“There aren’t many people doing this, to be honest,” she said.

Another of the few is Andrea Weissgerber, who just competed a master’s degree in restoration ecology studying the white lady’s slipper orchid at UW-Madison.

She was thrilled to join Riveredge’s project.

“Who gets to work with exactly what they studied in school?” Weissgerber said.

It isn’t easy work. Orchids are high-maintenance flowers.

“They’re rare because their habitat is rare,” Weissgerber said.

Some orchids require specific pollinators, such as a certain type of moth. If the moth becomes extinct, the orchids will die off.

The lady’s slippers have a deceptive pollination strategy. Bees are drawn to the plants but soon realize they don’t have any pollen to give. The plants only take.

“Once the bees figure it out, they won’t go back there,” Weissgerber said.

But orchids are high on the menu for deer, which isn’t helping their survival rates, Smith said.

The majority of the 22,000 species of orchids live in trees, Curran said. Those tropical versions are the ones people buy for houseplants.

“They’re very showy. People are drawn to orchids,” she said.

The ones at Riveredge grow in the ground. The center is working with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which propagates orchids in a lab and provides seedlings. They are planted in Riveredge’s shade house.

The goal is to develop other areas where the orchids can thrive.

“We have to find their forever home,” Curran said.

Weissgerber said they will visit sites where orchids are living and try to match the habitat at restoration sites.

The Sheboygan County Amsterdam Dunes Preservation Area is one site. Department of Natural Resources properties, land trusts and private property in which the owner is a good steward of the land are others.

The Ridges Sanctuary planted orchids in 2015 and 2016. Though they were predicted to have only a 10% survival rate,  25% lived, Curran said.
Ideal locations, she said, would have their habitats connected rather than fragmented.

“An easy journey for a bee,” Smith said.

Some other characteristics of orchids make their survival a challenge. Their seeds are small and dust-like.

“They can travel far but they have to land in the right spot,” Curran said.

“Floating DNA” as she calls it, must then form a relationship with fungi in the soil so it can get nutrients. It can take years to produce a green leaf. Some take up to 10 years to produce flowers.

Those kind of timelines make for a career for Curran.

“I always say I’ll be working on this project the rest of my life,” she said.

Curran remembers helping her mother collect seeds for a nursery, sparking her interest in nature when she was young. She planned to study archaeology but fell into botany.

Weissgerger grew up in Bayside learning how to fish and camp from her father and took a deeper interest in nature when she took an environmental sciences class in high school. She majored in art and environmental studies at DePaul University. When she determined that was too broad of a major, she went to grad school at UW-Madison.

Smith is from Missouri and remembers his father taking him to natural areas when he was young. He earned a biology degree at Northland College in Ashland near Lake Superior, where weekend activities included monitoring wolves.

The team is in a rush to document its orchid research “to keep them on the map historically,” Smith said.

The idea, Weissgerber said, is to expand the program to other states.

But Weissgerber is only at Riveredge through August, courtesy of a grant from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program. That grant required a match, which came from Riveredge, the Sheboygan County Planning Department, Stantec’s Greenlight Program and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

The shade house where the orchid seedlings live was funded by the American Transmission Co. and the Sheboygan County Planning Department.

More funding is needed, Smith said, and part of the orchid restoration effort is public awareness. The shade house is strategically located in the middle of Riveredge’s education area.

“This is not just about some pretty flower,” he said, adding that orchids help improve water quality, slow pollinators’ collapse and increase rare habitat preservation.

“It’s relevant and I think people are going to get hooked on the novelty of this flower. We want to involve kids and have them understand their connection to it,” he said.




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