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Is sustainable orchid harvest possible?

Tamara Ticktin, Jacob Phelps

Orchids are some of the most treasured plants on the planet. Some are prized for their unique fragrances, others for their rare and unusual forms, and others still for their medicinal and culinary properties. While most ornamental orchids, such as Dendrobium and Phalaenopis hybrids, are widely cultivated, many other species remain harvested from the wild, sometimes in very large quantities. For example, over 60,000 plants or plant parts (pseudobulbs), of the beautiful epiphytic orchid, Prosthechea karwinskii,can be sold in Mexican markets in just one year.

Prostechea karwinskii is heavily harvested in Mexico as an ornamental, especially during Holy week.
Prosthechea karwinskii is heavily harvested in Mexico as an ornamental, especially during Holy week. (Credit: J.Douglas)

Terrestrial orchid species (including Dactylorhiza, Orchis, Anacamptis) used for salep, a traditional drink of the Mediterranean region, are reported to be harvested in the tens of millions each year. There are also large commercial trades reported for edible terrestrial orchids in parts of Africa, and commercial harvest of medicinal species across the Himalayan region, China and Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, much of this trade, both legal and illegal, is unsustainable. Species that have declined due to overharvest include iconic species like the lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) in the UK and the Chinese medicinal, Dendrobium catenatum. However — there is also considerable evidence of long-term, sustainable wild harvest of other orchids.

These species often also make important contributions to local livelihoods and sustain cultural traditions. For example, the terrestrial species Dactylorhiza sambucina, used for salep in Greece, and the lithophytic species Bulbophyllum kwangtungense, used for medicine in China, are among those species that have been harvested for centuries without any apparent declines.

These starkly contrasting cases raise important questions for species conservation, trade regulation, livelihoods and sustainable use:

How can we identify which species might be harvested sustainably?

The Chinese medicinal orchids, Dendrobium catenatum (top) and Bulbophyllum kwangtungense (bottom) have been wild-harvested for centuries. Harvest has led to decline of D. catenatum populations, but harvest of B. kwangtungense appears to be sustainable. (Credit: M.Sunouchi, P.Kumar)

How can we distinguish harvest practices and contexts that lead to population

decline from those that do not?

There are growing efforts to make wild plant harvesting more sustainable. However, many orchids have unique life histories, and these are challenging

questions to answer for a such a hyper-diverse and relatively little researched family of plants. Indeed, shockingly little has been published on the impacts of wild harvest on orchid populations.

In cooperation with the Orchid Specialist Group’s Global Trade Programme, we convened an international group of orchid scientists to explore these questions.

Which species can be sustainably harvested, and how?

Our team developed a framework to help harvesters and resource managers identify when harvest is likely to be sustainable, and how it can be made more sustainable. We reviewed the literature and identified 24 different characteristics that may influence orchid harvest sustainability. We then trailed these against a variety of orchid species for which we had data, and eventually selected 12 characteristics that proved both informative and practical to use (i.e. information was easily available or observable in the field).

The key is designed for use with orchid species that are already being commercially traded, and identifies if and how the harvest of a given population at a given time can be conducted more sustainably. It includes information on abundance and distribution, species traits related to growth and reproduction, local management practices (including cultivation practices), and demand. It does not provide prescriptive instructions, but rather sets of considerations that harvesters and managers can use, experiment with, and adapt to local contexts, to improve the management of local orchid flora. It avoids quotas or other quantitative prescriptions because most of the characteristics that we identified as salient vary across species, sites and over time.

Better management of wild orchids

The key highlights how unsustainable systems might be improved through actions such as the partial harvesting of plants, and the harvest of fallen epiphytes. It also considers interventions to augment and reintroduce populations, and efforts to introduce cultivation. Especially as demand rises for some species, these activities will be increasingly critical to ensure greater sustainability.

Dactylorhiza sambucina is one of various orchid species harvested in large quantities for salep, a traditional Mediterranean drink. (Credit: Strobilomyces)

The key can guide harvesters and resource managers in making decisions, helping to operationalise existing domestic legislation and quotas. It can also support implementation of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations that govern the international trade of threatened species, and that often require government authorities to undertake technical Non-Detriment Findings (NDFs) studies to ensure that trade does not harm species survival. Although commercial trade of wild orchids is common, these NDFs are almost never conducted – in part because there is little guidance on how to implement them for orchids. By collaboratively refining and adapting the key over time, we can help ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy all the wonders that wild orchids bring.

Read more and access the decision-making key: Ticktin, T., Charitonidou, M., Douglas, J., Halley, J.M., Hernández-Apolinar, M., Liu, H., Mondragón, D., Pérez-García, E.A., Tremblay, R.L., Phelps, J., 2023. Wild orchids: A framework for identifying and improving sustainable harvest. Biological Conservation 277:109816.

Read more about wild orchid harvest and conservation:

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