Friday, May 4, 2012

The Good Fungus: Fungus & Orchid Conservation

Endangered Liparis liliifolia

I used to be very ambivalent about fungus. On the one hand, I like mushrooms on my pizza. On the other hand, I'm highly susceptible to athlete’s foot, and I hate fungus gnats with a burning passion. Now, after hearing Melissa McCormick talk at the MidAmerican Orchid Congress, I'm a fungus fan. The MAOC was held in conjunction with the Central Indianapolis Orchid Society annual show. It was an awesome show. I came home with a Paph. urbanianum and a lot of knowledge.

McCormick argued that native orchid species should be a central focus for conservation. She claimed that orchids are both the “pandas of the plant world” and “canaries in the coal mine” of entire ecosystems. The beauty of orchids can draw us into caring about conservation botanical conservation, and this is a good thing because orchids are often the first species to perish when ecosystems experience stress.

We need to have “pandas” because its hard to get people excited about fungus. But fungus is important because all orchid species form essential relationships with fungi. Orchid seeds have no self-contained source of food, so they need to find their fungus to develop and germinate. Some orchids, like the endangered
Liparis liliifolia, require a singular type of fungi. Having the proper population of insect pollinators is a key element of orchid conservation, and now we realize that we need the right fungi, too. To restore orchid populations and their ecosystem we need to identify the fungal requirements of specific orchids. This requires fancy DNA techniques like “real-time quantitative PCR.” And this requires fancy money.

Do you want to help the fungus (and by “fungus,” I mean “orchids,” and by “orchids,” I mean “pandas”)? You should donate to The North American Orchid Conservation Center.

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