In a project funded by the U.S. National Park Service, we are working with Dennis Whigham and Jay O'Neill to identify the fungi associated with Isotria medeoloides in the mid-Atlantic. Isotria medeoloides is endangered in 16 of the 20 states where it is still found, and is widely regarded as the "rarest orchid east of the Mississippi."
Like all orchids, I. medeoloides needs a specific set of fungi for its seeds to germinate. These fungi--and other fungi that associate with plants--are called mycorrhizal fungi. We have successfully identified the mycorrhizal fungi needed by this orchid, and are now using specific PCR primers to determine what factors govern the distribution and abundance of these fungi in the soil. We are combining this information with modeling of plant population dynamics to understand what factors are driving declines of this rare orchid. This information will be used to inform decisions about factors affecting extirpation and to determine sites and methods for restoration. Our work with Isotria was featured in a story on WAMU 88.5/NPR, and some of it has been published in the Native Orchid Conference Journal.
The next step in improving success of orchid conservation is to apply this understanding of orchid mycorrhizal assocations more broadly. To this end, we are working with others at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Botanic Garden to develop the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC), based at SERC. NAOCC will include an extensive living collection of orchid seeds and mycorrhizal fungi, and is working to develop propagation and reintroduction methods for all native North American orchids.