Chinese orchids are in trouble, here’s how to save them

There are more than twenty-five thousand species of orchids, making the Orchidaceae one of the most diverse groups of flowering plants. Of those thousands of species, there are 1,388 that grow in China, at least a third of which are found only there. And a significant proportion of Chinese orchids, primarily those of the genus Dendrobium, are threatened or nearly extinct in the wild. Like many wild orchids all over the world, the Chinese ones are threatened by habitat destruction and over-exploitation for horticulture. The country’s aggressive economic growth and development has rapidly encroached upon more rural areas, making it even tougher for the delicate flowers.

Pretty flowers are not usually thought of in terms of conservation needs, but the story of endangered Chinese orchids is a compelling one. While habitat loss and fragmentation are common culprits when it comes to threatened species, Chinese orchids also suffer from over-exploitation. That’s because at least 350 species of Chinese orchids are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In a recent issue of Biodiversity and Conservation, a group of scientists led by Florida International University researcher Hong Liu propose a possible solution to address the growing problem of orchid decline.

One type of orchid, Dendrobium catenatum (Tie Pi Shi Hu in Chinese) is used both in prescriptions by practitioners of TCM and as a supplement. “It is usually consumed directly as tea or mixed in soup,” Liu writes. “Its popularity started as tonic for traditional vocal artists to protect their voices and its use extended to cancer prevention and cure, as a boost to the immune system, and for other illnesses.” Whether the flowers actually have the purported benefits is a separate issue. They do contain bioactive compounds, but whether they are truly medically advantageous is still an open question.

Most of the market demand for wild Dendrobium orchids in China is for TCM, not for decoration as they might be in the United States. By the 1980s, the trade in medicinal Dendrobium reached 600,000 kilograms or more than 1.3 million pounds, all harvested from the wild, each year. Over the course of a single decade, those flowers would weigh the equivalent of two Saturn V rockets. Once you wrap your head around the mind-bogglingly enormous amount of wild orchids harvested, it becomes a bit easier to understand how those species could be in rough shape. Since Chinese orchids have become decimated, the market demand is starting to impact neighboring countries’ orchid populations too.

Historically, orchids have been subject to protection by CITES, which protects the species from international trade. Unfortunately, that can’t protect the flowers from trade within China, which is the root of the problem. One might argue that the Chinese government’s protected areas have indirectly helped wild orchids who share ecosystems with protected wildlife, and it’s true in some instance. But these efforts have generally proven ineffective, as the reserves face insufficient funding. Some make up for their funding shortfalls by cultivating orchids at a commercial level. “While large-scale shade house cultivation generates income for the [Yachang Reserve], this mode of cultivation does not contribute to species restoration directly.” Commercial cultivation may reduce some of the pressure on wild populations, but it does not help to restore them.

Liu and colleagues propose a new strategy for Dendrobium orchids that they call restoration-friendly cultivation. They say that the unconventional proposal “allows for sustainable harvest to address concerns of poaching and livelihood creation in and around nature reserves.”

It turns out that most orchids, at least those of the Dendrobium species used in TCM, grow non-parasitically along tree trunks and bare rocks. They use the trees and rocks as a substrate, but they don’t affect them. That means new orchids can be planted without parasitizing existing plants. In addition, the biology of Dendrobium orchids allows older stems that have already flowered and fruited to be harvested without impairing the larger organism, making room for newer stems.

Liu proposes that these species be reintroduced into privately owned natural forests, where they can be carefully harvested. That will allow wild orchids into the market, but in a way that will also sustain the wild populations. In addition, landowners would be encouraged to maintain the forests on their land as a source of orchids, rather than the more common practice of replacing native forests with exotic trees of high economic value, such as Eucalyptus. Native forests with viable orchid populations, the researchers argue, are more economically valuable than non-native groves.

Liu points out that tending to non-native forests is quite labor intensive, and is a difficult task for the poor communities that live near Chinese nature reserves. That’s because the young laborers tend to seek employment in coastal regions, where they can make more money, leaving elders and children in the villages. Similarly, large-scale cultivation operations may exclude the participation of villagers with limited education. “With proper training and appropriate small loans,” the researchers argue, restoration-friendly cultivation techniques “can be adopted by the marginalized populations of older and female rural residents in orchid hotspots because it requires non-intensive labor and smaller initial investments.” The incredible demand for orchids can, over time, lead to financial independence for rural farmers.

Increasingly, researchers are realizing that the best way to encourage conservation behavior among landowners is to appeal to economic interests rather than to scientific ones. It is too easy for human communities, especially marginalized ones with little resources and low education, to exploit wildlife. And who can blame them? The best approaches to conservation are ones that have social and economic benefits for the communities that share ecosystems with endangered wildlife, both plants and animals.

“With proper policy and oversight, the restoration-friendly cultivation of medicinal Dendrobium orchids will facilitate the conservation of these threatened species, encourage protection of natural forests, and benefit marginalized rural communities,” Liu says. “Adding this restoration-friendly cultivation into the current mix of conservation approaches has the potential to turn deeply-entrenched traditional uses of orchids from a conservation challenge to a conservation success.” – Jason G. Goldman | 4 April 2014

Source: Liu H., Luo Y.B., Heinen J., Bhat M. & Liu Z.J. (2014). Eat your orchid and have it too: a potentially new conservation formula for Chinese epiphytic medicinal orchids, Biodiversity and Conservation, 23 (5) 1215-1228. DOI:

Image: Dendrobium udom via Flickr/Scott Zona.