Orchids, Fungi & Symbioses

Research Labs

More than 50 percent of native orchids in North America have been listed as threatened or endangered in some part of their home range. One important aspect of orchid conservation is propagation. To date most of the propagation efforts have focused on tropical orchid species. While there has been some progress in understanding the biology and ecology of native North American orchids, current research and conservation efforts are slow, threatening orchid survival.

Orchids and mycorrhizal fungi have a complex symbiotic association where each of the orchid’s life stages are dependent at some level on specific fungi. In the earliest stages, orchids rely entirely on their mycorrhizal fungi for all nutrients, including carbon. While the association with symbiotic fungi is critical, specialized habitats and pollinators also play an important role in an orchid’s life cycle. Because orchids are often viewed as indicators of overall environmental health, understanding the biology and ecology of orchids, fungi and pollinators, as well as their ecosystem requirements, is necessary to develop effective protocols for orchid preservation and propagation.

Symbiotic associations are critical to life on Earth. Orchids make up 10 percent of the world's plant species. Forming symbiotic associations with both fungi and pollinators that can range from mutually beneficial to exploitative make orchids excellent models for studying symbiotic associations.  Examining the effects of environmental conditions and the distribution and abundance of mycorrhizal fungi as drivers of orchid distribution and flowering is important for successful orchid conservation.