Breathing new life into orchids
8 september 2022
By pooling their knowledge of conservation genetics and orchid-growing, Linus Söderquist and Simon Hultby have developed a method to reintroduce endangered orchid species and strengthen their populations. The company they co-founded is now putting that method into practice.
Liparis loeselii (the fen orchid), cypripedium calceolus (lady's slipper orchid) and anacamptis morio (the green-winged orchid) are three of the roughly 40 wild orchid species found in Sweden. All of them are protected, some even at risk of going extinct. That is because orchids require a unique environment to thrive; few orchid species cope well with changes to their climatic conditions. A well-known fact to experts Linus Söderquist and Simon Hultby, who have now set up a company together to grow Swedish orchids as a way of conserving them.
Planting plants for the sake of conservation is seldom done in Sweden, as many fear it would upset gene pools' equilibrium. But change might just be underway: because as long as scientific guidelines are respected, there is rarely any reason for such concern. Linus Söderquist and Simon Hultby hope to be at the forefront of this trend.
"Our goal is to preserve wild orchids in Swedish nature by taking practical measures based on the latest research," Linus Söderquist, a PhD student in Plant Ecology & Evolution at Uppsala University, explains.
From seed to plant
The idea took root several years ago, when Linus Söderquist and Simon Hultby were introduced to each other by Svante Malmgren, a pioneer in the field of orchid-sowing.
"With my orchid-growing skills and Linus's knowledge of how to ensure a population you plan on introducing into the wild will have a healthy genetic composition, we quickly realised that if we teamed up, we could make a real difference," Simon Hultby, one of the gardeners at the Linnaean Gardens of Uppsala, recalls.
Their method consists of multiple steps, the first being to gather seeds from local wild orchid populations. Next, the seeds are sown, replanted a first time, and then replanted and cultivated in soil. Eventually, you have young plants ready to be planted out into nature. Each steps requires not just specialist knowledge and skills, but also time and patience: it takes at least four years from the moment the first seed is collected to an orchid being planted and flowering out in the wild.
"The key is not to rush things. It's better to let them grow in a pot for a full year, to cultivate stronger plants to plant out into nature. Otherwise, the merest glance from a passing snail could be the death of them," Simon Hultby advises.
Traceability enhances resistance
Another way to ensure the plants you grow will thrive, is to capture as genetically diverse a sample as possible from the local gene pool. Linus Söderquist and Simon Hultby are very well acquainted with the lineage of the plants they grow and know the genetic origins of each and every one of them. Their orchids are accompanied by an info marker, from the moment the seed is sown to the day the grown plant is planted out into nature. In the case of species they hand-pollinate, like the lady's slipper orchid, they can even identify each plant's parents.
"This traceability helps us develop more resistant populations with the very best long-term survival and reproduction rates, which is the whole point of what we're doing," Linus Söderquist says.
Flagship for conservation efforts
The duo mainly targets municipalities, county administrative boards and non-profit organisations. Today, they are working on two projects, one in Skåne county in the south of Sweden and one in Östergötland county, south-west of the capital city. Söderquist and Hultby expect to be able to take on several new projects each year.
"The plan is to run the company alongside our day jobs. Getting to implement our theoretical know-how in practice really motivates us," Linus Söderquist says.
He and Hultby are now keeping their fingers crossed that more people will discover the method, and realise that what they are doing is not only possible, but that there is even government funding available for nature conservation projects.
"Up until now, our clients have found us rather than the other way round. Going forward, I think the challenge will be identifying actors who could really use our help but who, for various reasons, don't dare to take that step or don't believe it'll work," Simon Hultby muses.
Both partners feel there's something special about orchids: the way they look, the way their leaves and blooms feel—and the fact that they're so widely known.
"We hope and genuinely believe orchids will be able to serve as a flagship for nature conservation efforts. We have need to prioritise conservation—things aren't going well for many of Sweden's wild orchids. We want to do everything we can to preserve the species that are left," Linus Söderquist says, before adding:
"As a rule of thumb, you can say that when orchids thrive somewhere, other endangered species will often thrive there as well."
Orchis Natur Norden AB is a company that cultivates Swedish orchids to replace extinct species and protect endangered orchid populations. It was founded in 2022 by Linus Söderquist, a PhD student in Plant Ecology & Evolution at Uppsala University, and Simon Hultby, a gardener at the Linnaean Gardens of Uppsala.