Student works to save endangered orchids with friendly fungi

Friendly fungi may be the key to helping vulnerable Florida orchid populations rebound.

Ellen Garcia, a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Environment and the Agroecology program in the FIU Institute of Environment, knows all too well the struggle native Floridian orchids face. Of the nearly 100 species of orchids in Florida, many are considered threatened or endangered because of poaching, over-harvesting and habitat loss.

Garcia has focused her research on the relationship that orchids have with mycorrhizal fungi. Orchids rely on the fungi for germination and nutrient absorption. Orchids that are less choosy and are willing to pair with a variety of fungi species stand a better chance at beating extinction than orchids who want to pair up with a certain type of fungi.

To investigate this relationship, Garcia collected over 130 samples of Pine-Pink Orchids, Tampa Butterfly Orchids, Florida Dancinglady Orchids and Cigar Orchids. They range from commercially exploited to endangered. She collected samples from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Naples Botanical Garden and Downtown Doral Park.

The data she collected is used to determine optimal growing conditions for the threatened plants, as well as for gene-banking of the paired mycorrhizal fungi. The next phase of the project will include cryopreservation of the fungi for long-term storage and conservation. The goal is to inform orchid breeding programs and encourage reintroduction of these threatened plants from the lab back into their native habitats.

“Not only are orchids beautiful, but they are also part of our ecosystems in south Florida that are imperative to preserve for future generations,” Garcia said.

Garcia recently presented her research at the virtual Annual American Society for Horticultural Science conference. She is also a recipient of the summer 2020 FIU Institute of Environment Graduate Student Project and Travel Grant.

“Working in science is fueled by collaboration, curiosity, perseverance, critical thinking, creativity, and experimentation,” she said. “It is challenging and very rewarding to problem solve and obtain results to be able to give back to the scientific community.”

Garcia’s research is a part of a comprehensive study on mycorrhizal fungi, in-vitro micropropagation, gene-banking and acclimatization of endangered orchids under Assistant Teaching Professor Amir Khoddamzadeh and supported by the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Innovation Curriculum for Agriculture Training and Career for Hispanics grant and the FIU Institute of Environment.