Fairchild delivers orchid seedlings to environmental magnet school

Terra high school students place orchid seedling containers on shelves in their classroom.

Terra high school students place orchid seedling containers on shelves in their classroom.

Earlier in October, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Carl Lewis, director, and Amy Padolf, director of education, transported more than 10,000 endangered South Florida orchid seedlings to Terra Environmental Research Institute in West Kendall.

Terra, Miami-Dade County’s environmental magnet school, is hosting and monitoring these orchids as part of Fairchild’s Million Orchid Campaign pilot program to reintroduce native, endangered orchids back into South Florida’s urban landscape.

Tom Privett, a social studies teacher who volunteers at Fairchild, introduced Lewis and Padolf to a class of about 30 students and gave a brief explanation of Terra’s participation with the orchid campaign.

“This is a very important project,” Privett said. “This is the real deal.”

Lewis explained that the orchids are being micropropagated to ensure a higher rate of survival. In order for orchids to grow, their seeds must be dispersed by the wind and land in the perfect location on a tree with symbiotic fungus; however, this is rare, and the success rate tends to be low.

Fairchild scientists used small containers and micropropagation techniques to increase the number of orchid seedlings yielded. The containers are placed on shelves with proper lighting for students to observe the plant growth.

“This is the first school that will host these shelves,” Lewis said, noting the importance of Terra’s involvement.

Native orchids used to cover Florida, but beginning in the late 1800s, were among the first natural resources to be exploited and sold. Today, native orchids have dwindled to such small numbers that they can’t recover on their own.

Fairchild’s Micropropagation Laboratory, part of the Science Village opened in December 2012, aims to solve this problem by generating a limitless supply of young native orchid plants and having the first generation of orchids blooming throughout South Florida’s urban environments. This project is adopted from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which successfully micropropagated native orchids and introduced them back into the city, finding that orchids placed in the city survive just as well as the ones in their forests.

Padolf emphasized the importance of the work students will do to research these orchids. Terra is the first school to receive these orchid flasks, and Fairchild will determine how the program will be replicated based on the work done at Terra. She noted that Terra was the perfect place to host this project because of its strong dedication to science and the environment.

“We’re going to use what we learn here and apply it to other schools,” Padolf said.

After the introduction, students volunteered to set up the shelves and orchid flasks in their classroom. The flasks contained three varieties of native orchids: cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum), Florida butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampense), and dollar orchid (Prosthechea boothiane). As they set everything up, students asked indepth questions related to micropropagation techniques and how orchids can grow in a contained environment. These were great questions to get them ready for their research.

Surey Rios, a science teacher at Terra, said the Million Orchid Campaign will be part of the yearlong research project for her science class. Her students will perform quantitative and qualitative data analyses to make observations and determine when the orchids are ready to be transplanted to the on-campus greenhouse. Because the goal is to reintroduce these plants back into Miami, the project gives students “something that has meaning,” Rios said.

Fairchild staff will follow up and visit Terra again around Earth Day in April to help transplant the orchid seedlings to the greenhouse, where they will continue to grow until they’re ready to be released into metropolitan Miami.

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