Taiwan's conservationists trying to save its orchid species

07/03/2020 08:56 PM
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Phalaenopsis equestris. / Photo courtesy of Chen Chun-ming
Phalaenopsis equestris. / Photo courtesy of Chen Chun-ming

Taipei, July 3 (CNA) A tropical plant conservation group in Taiwan is pushing ahead with an ambitious program aimed at saving the island's indigenous orchids by reviving the native moth orchid species and allowing them to thrive in the forests where they originated.

The goal of the "Bringing Moth Orchids Back Home" program is to have every moth orchid species in the world boom at their native breeding sites, Chen Chun-ming (陳俊銘), a senior collection manager at the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center (KBCC) in Pingtung County, told CNA in a recent interview.

Taiwan, like many places around the world, have seen its moth orchid species gradually disappear from the wild because they have been "mercilessly picked" for their beauty, Chen said.

For example, the species Phalaenopsis equestris (P. equestris, 姬蝴蝶蘭), which is native to Taiwan, currently only breeds in a very small volume on Little Lanyu, an islet situated southeast of the bigger Lanyu or Orchid Island, Chen said.

"It is in dire need to be saved from extinction," said Chen.

To stop the plant's misfortune and save moth orchid species in Taiwan, the KBCC launched the Bringing Moth Orchids Back Home program two years ago. 

Under the program, researchers will not only search for more moth orchid sources at their original breeding sites, but will also look for the plant at old orchid gardens around Taiwan in hopes of finding those that were picked from the wild, Chen said.

Since the KBCC was established in 2007, it has collected 33,689 species of plants, the world's richest living plant conservation collection.

Among them, more than 9,000 species are from the Orchid family, including Phalaenopsis, which is commonly known as moth orchids, according to the center, a non-governmental organization devoted to tropical plant conservation.

Phalaenopsis aphrodite subsp. formosana. / Photo courtesy of Chen Chun-ming
Phalaenopsis aphrodite subsp. formosana. / Photo courtesy of Chen Chun-ming

According to Chen, there are two different native moth orchid species in Taiwan, namely Phalaenopsis aphrodite subsp. formosana (P. aphrodite, 白花蝴蝶蘭), which have white flowers, and P. equestris, which have pink or red flowers.

P. aphrodite grows in broad-leaved forests at altitudes of 100-400 meters above sea level, from Hengchun Peninsula in southern Taiwan to Taitung County and its outlying township of Lanyu in the east.

The moth orchid eventually became an important source in the development of novelty species in Taiwan's orchid industry, Chen said.

He pointed out that the orchid with big white flowers, which is commonly sold in markets, is one of the results of cross-pollination.

Since the Japanese colonial era from 1895 to 1945, P. aphrodite orchids have frequently joined international competitions around the world, thus making Taiwan famous on the global stage as a "kingdom of orchids," according to Chen.

However, the implementation of the program was not made possible until the molecule verification technique at the center had been improved to a degree that allowed researchers to recognize subtle differences among different groups of the same plant species, Chen said.

His dream is that eventually, Taiwan's native moth orchids can "reproduce on their own."

For this goal to be achieved, however, the plants have to multiply in a big amount so that they can meet the demand in markets and also thrive in the wild, Chen said.

So satisfying humans' demand for orchids may ironically be the key to saving them.

(By Kuo Chih-hsuan and Elizabeth Hsu)

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