Illinois College is a safe haven for rare orchids

Chris Young

Hold out your hands and cradle the future of one of the Earth’s most imperiled species.

Each petri plate holds several seedlings of Platanthera holochila — a rare Hawaiian orchid. Because the plants are so tiny, it’s hard to believe they already are a year old.

Larry Zettler, associate professor of biology at Illinois College in Jacksonville, stacks the plates in your hands until the number of seedlings is greater than 36 — the number of individuals of this species of Hawaiian orchid that exist outside of a laboratory.

It’s a heavy bit of perspective, not to mention responsibility. But it’s a responsibility that Illinois College has been sharing with its students for several years now.

The small, private college of about 1,000 students has been involved in the recovery of rare orchids in Florida, Illinois and Hawaii. There are 223 species of orchids in North America, excluding Mexico, and 35 in Illinois alone.

Zettler and his students have been among the few to be able to germinate the tiny seeds of rare orchids in the lab. Orchids are finicky, requiring a specific fungus to be present in the soil for the plant to feed upon.

“Orchids aren’t the cute, cuddly plants we think they are,” Zettler says. “The fungus is the food, and the orchid is the aggressor.”

Just identifying the particular fungus can be frustrating. Getting everything to work — even in a controlled environment — can be even more so.

Sometimes a fungus works, but it’s not the one native to the orchid’s area. So it can’t be used.

“The fungus is in Hawaii,” Zettler says. “But what we thought would do the trick didn’t work.

“The Florida fungus (used to germinate rare orchids from south Florida) works, but it’s not native to Hawaii.”

The Hawaiian orchid seeds can grow without the fungus, but then they grow even slower — causing Zettler and his students to wait for an excruciatingly long time.

On the wings of birds

The theory is that migrating birds somehow brought the seeds of the ancestors of Platanthera holochila to the Hawaiian Islands — 2,500 miles from the nearest mainland.

“I think it’s possible,” Zettler says. “Give it a few million years to work, and it’s inevitable.”

Maybe next year, Zettler and his students will climb aboard a jet airliner, carrying with them enough plants to give the Hawaiian orchid a second chance, and essentially repeat the miracle of its introduction.

Hawaii was once home to a unique assemblage of plants, fish and birds — with only one mammal species and no reptiles or amphibians. With few predators, slow-growing plants and flightless birds could evolve.

Then, the first Hawaiians brought nearly three dozen species of plants and animals, including pigs and rats. In less than 1,600 years, 17 flightless birds became extinct. More invasions followed as explorers in sailing ships brought more new species to Hawaii’s shores.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Hawaii has the distinction of being home to 75 percent of all plant and animal extinctions in the United States. One-hundred seventy of its plant species are endangered, and many of those — including Platanthera holochila — have fewer than 100 individuals left.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in some cases, a single plant is all that remains.

Half of the islands’ 140 native birds are gone. Of the survivors, 31 are endangered. That makes up almost 40 percent of birds on the U.S. endangered species list.

Bringing Hawaii’s weather to Jacksonville

The orchids live in an almost fairy-tale setting at high altitude in moist cloud forests full of ferns.

Zettler likens the habitat to a scene out of a “Harry Potter” movie.

Zettler and his students have 255 Hawaiian orchids growing at Illinois College. The orchids are living inside an environmental growth chamber that costs $15,000 and carefully controls temperature and humidity to mimic a Hawaiian cloud forest.

“If the temperature in this room fluctuates, it will always be Hawaii inside (the growth chamber),” Zettler says.

Zettler and his students say they hope enough plants survive to at least double the number of the orchids growing at a few secret locations in the Hawaiian Islands.

But first, the 1-year-old seedlings must be transplanted from the petri plates to larger flasks so they have room to grow.

It’s a bit like a surgical procedure. Everything is sterilized: the implements used to move the plants, the surface in the sterile hood, the growing medium — everything.

Zettler asks that a fleece vest be taken off and hung on a chair away from the transplanting area because of any “little fuzzies” that might contaminate things.

He examines the flasks with a layer of growing medium consisting of simple sugars and charcoal.

“Whatever you guys did, you did a great job,” he says. “I didn’t see any fungal spores or bacterial colonies.”

Illinois College junior Lillian Moller-Jacobs of Rockford, majoring in biology, is transplanting orchids on a damp fall afternoon — perfect for working inside.

Zettler drafted Moller-Jacobs as a freshman, saying she “exemplified the thirst for knowledge” and had the lab skills necessary.

“I think it’s an opportunity you can have at a school like this,” she says.

That opportunity, of course, is working with a federally endangered species on the brink of extinction. Heck, just drop a seedling during the transfer and it’s toast. Sure, it might survive the four-inch drop to the surface of the sterile hood, but essentially it’s contaminated.

“If you drop it, we can put it in the greenhouse and see how it does,” Zettler says, not offering much hope for any mistakes.

It’s like the board game “Operation,” but without the buzzer and for much, much higher stakes than simply losing a turn. These plants can’t afford it.

“It helps to joke about it,” Moller-Jacobs says.

“It’s our biggest, scariest project right now — getting these Hawaiian orchids to survive,” Zettler says. “The seedlings take four years to get as long as your thumbnail.”

Young scientists

Every year, Zettler tries to identify a few students who show exceptional aptitude and invites them to help out. One of his early students, Scott Stewart from Virginia, did so much research as an undergrad that he got to skip his master’s degree and go straight to a doctoral program in Florida. He continues to conduct research on rare orchids.

Through the orchid recovery program, Illinois College students have visited or conducted research in Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Florida, the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

The tallgrass prairie closer to home hasn’t been neglected. Illinois College has worked to help recover the federally endangered Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

 “There are not many schools where you can find programs like this or professors that are willing to work with you on a daily basis,” says Erin Wood, a junior studying environmental biology and English.

Zettler comes by his interest in orchids naturally. His father was a botany professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His mother instilled an appreciation for art, and Zettler has illustrated books on dragonflies and black flies.

He came to Illinois College in 1996.

For more than a decade, Zettler has been trying to interest students in the natural world by involving them directly in the conservation of rare plants.

“They are going to be our stewards,” He says with a smile. “Once they put down their BlackBerries.”

One step at a time

In the lab outside Zettler’s office, Moller-Jacobs patiently transplants tiny seedlings, one after the other. It can be tedious work, but lapses in concentration aren’t allowed.

With more than 200 seedlings to move, it will be a long afternoon stretching into evening. He suggests that she take a break if she’s feeling fatigued.

“It’s a good thing the agar is sticky,” she says, moving an orchid with a tiny spatula with a tip so narrow it looks like a dental tool.

On Monday morning, Zettler reports the tiny orchids made it through Thanksgiving break and are, for now, safely through to the next round in their fight for survival.

It’s a journey almost as long and unlikely as a tiny speck of a seed hitching a ride 2,500 miles to the Hawaiian Islands.

Students at Illinois College are pledging their time and talent in hopes the journey doesn’t end in extinction.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528