Rare Orchid Will Gauge Sensitive Habitat – and University’s Stewardship

From MLive

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The rare orchid Spiranthes ovalis, or Lesser Lady’s-Tresses, at the Colony Farm Orchard owned by Western Michigan University. The threatened species is one of only seven occurrences in Michigan and should be conserved as the university expands its business park, the writer argues. (Western Michigan University Landscape Services)

By Shaana Way

Widely celebrated for sustainability on multiple fronts, Western Michigan University now has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to environmental stewardship.

In September 2015, WMU Professor Todd Barkman was informed of a rare orchid species discovered at Colony Farm Orchard. The orchid was spotted by a WMU employee who contacted local botanist Tyler Bassett. Bassett tentatively identified the orchid as the legally protected species Spiranthes ovalis, or Lesser Lady’s-Tresses.

To determine for certain that the plant was Lesser Lady’s-Tresses, Barkman and his students acquired a permit from the Department of Natural Resources to collect a small amount of the orchid’s leaf tissue to extract and sequence the DNA. Their results confirmed that the DNA is identical to known individuals of S. ovalis.

The state of Michigan has already pledged its commitment to protecting this orchid. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory currently classifies S. ovalis as a threatened species, and with only seven known occurrences in the state (including instances in Allegan and Washtenaw counties), it is considered critically imperiled and legally protected under the 1994 Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

But the responsibility to uphold these protections and stewardship is now in the hands of WMU. S. ovalis may easily become extinct in Michigan if efforts to conserve habitats such as the Colony Farm Orchard are not fully embraced. That is just one reason not to damage the orchid or its habitat.

Like a canary in a coal mine, S. ovalis may act as an indicator of surprisingly high biological diversity in a former fruit orchard that has been left to natural ecological processes for decades. If not carried out thoughtfully, development of this property is likely to destroy the value of such natural processes.

The presence of S. ovalis at Colony Farm Orchard may be an indication of the property’s underlying value that should be more fully researched and appreciated; the importance of rare plant and animal species may not be wholly understood before it is too late to study and conserve them. Development of natural habitat largely contributes to loss of wildlife, and if habitat loss continues to accelerate, species now considered secure may soon be threatened by extinction.

Colony Farm Orchard is owned by WMU adjacent to Asylum Lake Preserve and serves as the site for the Business, Technology, & Research Park expansion, or BTR II. The park’s design team has been informed of the exact location of the orchid with the intent that the plant and its surrounding habitat will be conserved.

Given the recent controversy surrounding development of Colony Farm Orchard and stated dedication to sustainability by WMU, expectations for a careful approach to design are high.

Shaana Way is a senior studying biology at Western Michigan University. She is a co-manager of the student apiary at Colony Farm Orchard and her interests include pollinator ecology, fruit production, and conservation.

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