A group of 7th grade science students at Wayzata Central Middle School are researching how orchids grow and survive in different conditions to help conserve Minnesota’s wild orchid populations. Through a pilot program from The Plant Conservation Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the students are planting Cypripedium acaule, commonly called the moccasin flower, to determine the most effective propagation protocol for this specific species of orchid.
“This research will benefit us directly,” said David Remucal, Arboretum curator of endangered plants, “but is also a way of engaging the next generation of scientists, giving them the chance to do research that will allow them to take direct part in discovery and analysis, working with each other and scientists to determine what the data mean.”
The Arboretum’s Plant Conservation Program focuses on endangered plants and native orchids. The program is creating a seed bank of native Minnesota orchids, which include 48 different species.
While most plant’s seeds are packaged with the energy reserves they need to germinate, orchids depend on fungi in the soil to germinate and in some cases, for its entire lifecycle. They also have very specific watering requirements, soil pH requirements and relationships with pollinators. Since orchids are so sensitive to their surroundings, they are often the first to respond to any changes in environment—10 orchids native to Minnesota are on the endangered species list. Each species of orchid requires different propagation methods and scientists are still trying to find effective methods to grow the orchids and reintroduce them into their natural habitats.
“We are trying to determine the best growing conditions for these seedlings to survive,” Remucal said. “We’ve had trouble keeping moccasin flowers alive for more than a year in pots. We are having the students experiment with different growing conditions to help us figure out how to better keep them alive in beds or pots.”
Last Thursday, the students met with Kim Drewiske, Plant Conservation Program research technician, and Randy Gage, Arboretum manager of youth education, to prepare the experiment. They set up the shelving units and grow lights for the plants and discussed the goals of the experiment.
Next Thursday, the students will meet with Arboretum staff again to plant the seedlings and set up the experiment, planting Cypripedium acaule in three different growing treatments. The students will spend 10 weeks collecting data and analyzing it to see what types of conditions lead to the most successful growth.
“Project Orchid offers a unique opportunity for 7th grade student scientists to engage in authentic plant conservation research,” Gage said. “Through setting up the experiment, measuring and recording data, analyzing and communicating results, 7th grade student scientists are doing important orchid conservation research that will improve our understanding of Minnesota native orchids. It is exciting to see how young student scientists can be learning and contributing important scientific research.”
At the end of the experiment, students will plant the orchids they’ve grown into new raised orchid beds at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. They’ll also create a poster and present what they’ve learned about the orchids.
“My students are hungry for opportunities to participate in real scientific research,” said Kris Swartchick 7th grade science teacher at Wayzata Central Middle School and Project Orchid lead. “There are so few opportunities at the middle school level.”
Gage and Remucal hope to grow Project Orchid to classrooms statewide. Educators can learn more about the program and apply to join Project Orchid here.