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Energy & Environment

Pollinating A Rare Plant Species By Hand Pays Off

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Wisconsin DNR
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Giving an assistance to Mother Nature is paying off as biologists helped an endangered orchid with successful reproduction.

A painstaking effort by state conservation biologists to pollinate Wisconsin's rarest wild orchids by hand has paid off: all flowers pollinated by hand produced more seed than flowers left to be pollinated by insects.

The results are good news for the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid one of Wisconsin's 48 native orchids and a species considered endangered in Wisconsin and threatened nationally.

A conservation botanist for the DNR's Natural Heritage Conservation program, Kevin Doyle, says the range of the plant is from New York to Iowa. He says research indicates small, isolated populations of the plants are suffering from in-breeding. That results in less robust reproduction.

Doyle says research found hand pollinating was successful..

"...collect pollen from one plant and move it to another plant at another site. The idea is to combat that in-breeding depression, we're going to move the genetic material around between populations to introduce some genetic diversity..."

He says in all cases, the hand-pollinated orchids did better than those left in natural reproduction. Night-flying hawk moths naturally pollinate the orchids. Doyle says the isolated populations leads to a seed quality issue and the isolation also leads to a pollinator issue.

Doyle says there's about 330 plants in Wisconsin that are endangered, threatened or special concerns.

He says it's likely that loss of habitat has led to the rarity of the orchids.

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