How Stantec botanist Melissa Curran is partnering with researchers and community members for the conservation of terrestrial orchids in North America
Orchids. People around the world are fascinated and delighted by these extraordinary plants. While many people think of popular tropical orchids that grow on trees, there are also more than 200 species of terrestrial orchids in North America. The terrestrial variety of orchids, which includes the white lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) and the moccasin flower (Cypripedium acaule), spend their entire life in the soil. In addition to their beauty, these orchids act as the “canary in the coal mine” of ecological systems: their failure to thrive indicates a natural habitat’s decline.
Stantec’s Greenlight fund, part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, supports our people’s great ideas—like Melissa Curran’s. Learn how Melissa is working to restore and conserve North American orchid species through research and partnerships.
Unfortunately, all 200 North American terrestrial orchid species are endangered in at least part of their range of distribution (the areas in which they grow). Considering their role as a bio-indicator and the visual diversity they bring to our landscapes, populations are especially important as indicators of ecosystem health in our ever-changing landscapes. Unlike tropical epiphytic orchids, most terrestrial orchids are notoriously difficult to grow, mostly due to their complex relationships with fungi in soil. Can anything be done to restore and conserve native orchid populations?
Stantec botanist Melissa Curran (Green Bay, Wisconsin) says yes. She’s been working on restoring orchids to their natural habitats for years. For our clients and community partners, her work doesn’t just provide pleasant scenery; it also plays a critical role in preserving orchid species for years to come and helps educate people about these rare and important plants.
“I feel a sense of urgency in my work,” says Melissa. “I want to figure out how to reintroduce these orchid species now while we can still compare them to existing populations.”
The white lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) is one of 10 orchid species Melissa is focusing on in her project and one of 50 orchid species native to the US state of Wisconsin.
The life cycle of orchids requires us to play the long game
Melissa’s orchid restoration project has been underway since 2013 and is expected to last for several more years. “I’m sure I’ll be working on this project well into retirement,” she says, only half-joking. “There’s so much we don’t know about orchids, and so much work yet to do. It really takes somebody with longevity to make any headway in this field.”
So why the long-term approach? It has to do with terrestrial orchids themselves. Their minuscule seeds—the size of a particle of sawdust—require certain types of fungus in the soil in order to germinate and for the embryo to grow. Following germination, orchid embryos grow into protocorms, the tuber-shaped result of an embryo’s association with fungi. But protocorms are not green and cannot photosynthesize, meaning orchids cannot move past the protocorm stage without digesting the fungi with which they associate. It can take a couple of years for an orchid seedling to grow large enough to plant, and up to five years—sometimes up to 15 years—for it to flower. And every species is different.
Like the unique and specific conditions these orchids require to grow, Melissa has been cultivating a unique and specific team of partners to join her and Stantec in the research and reestablishment of orchid populations. Her partners include:
Riveredge Nature Center near Saukville, Wisconsin
Melissa and partners most recently hosted an orchid planting event here in May 2019 (watch Stantec on orchids at the beginning of this article for more about the event)
The University of Minnesota (U of M) Landscape Arboretum
David Remucal, Curator of Endangered Plants, grew orchid seedlings for the planting event at Riveredge
Melissa also provides David with terrestrial orchid seed for his group’s research and conservation efforts
The North American Orchid Conservation Centre (NAOCC), a program of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution
- NAOCC was founded by Dennis Whigham, Senior Botanist, on a principal of collaboration, making its work and Stantec’s complementary from the start
- Julianne McGuinness, Program Development Coordinator, works together with Melissa and other partners to research orchid lifecycles and educate people about the plant
“You can’t just take orchid seed, throw it in the ground, and expect to get orchids,” the U of M’s David Remucal explains. “Orchids have a pretty specialized biology—each species requires different soil and environmental conditions to grow and thrive. As researchers, we’re just starting to delve into and test what conditions each species needs to germinate and survive.”
“We’re excited to do this work with Melissa because it gives us the opportunity to plant different species and collect data. Melissa knows what she’s doing. She’s a well-trained scientist who is versed in plants and ecology. I can trust that she’s going to return us good data.”
Our research is rooted in collaboration
In her day-to-day work, Melissa supports various client projects (from transportation through residential) in her role in Stantec’s Environmental Services group. In addition to conducting detailed botanical inventories of plant communities in the Wisconsin region, she also helps clients identify and secure grants to help move their projects forward. Since 2016, she has helped our clients raise more than CAD$9 million in project funding, and aims to help clients, partners, and colleagues raise even more.
Melissa also finds time for her orchid restoration project, which is funded by Stantec’s Greenlight program—part of our Creativity & Innovation Program—which financially supports our people’s good ideas. Over the past six years, she has used her funding to hire a graduate student (now funded outside of the Greenlight program), purchase a shade house at Riveredge, buy materials, and pay for her time and expenses related to the project. Without the Greenlight support, she says this project wouldn’t be possible.
Melissa and her work are key to NAOCC’s program, says Julianne, explaining the groups have a “stellar” connection.
“We really value our collaboration with Melissa and Stantec,” she says. “There’s more power in collaborative work to advance conservation efforts than there is in people working in isolation. We strive to network our partners in different regions together so we can collaboratively move orchid conservation forward.”
Although each organization has its individual goals, the collaborative work of these partners is leading to a better understanding of terrestrial orchids—especially those in the US Midwest—along with improved conservation and restoration outcomes.
Melissa often spends time working in the field. Here, she collects seed from orchids at the Riveredge Nature Center.
Our special approach helps special species to thrive
It’s Melissa’s dedicated approach and Stantec’s corporate support that makes this project unique among the few terrestrial orchid studies underway.
Says David, “This kind of project, especially on this scale with this many species , is just not done with terrestrial orchids. These plants are tricky enough that people don’t do restorations and re-introductions with them almost ever. Usually, the only people who are doing this kind of work are academics, and they’re doing it for research. Doing conservation re-introductions is not commonplace at all. What Melissa is doing at the scale and with the numbers she’s working with is incredibly unique.”
For Melissa, the effort put into researching and reestablishing populations today will pay off tomorrow. Melissa uses her expertise to help her clients and partners and shares her knowledge with her global Stantec colleagues and their clients and partners. But it’s the community outreach and public education components of the project that Melissa values most.
“I want people to be engaged and have a hands-on experience with orchids so we can talk about the larger conservation issues that will be needed if we want to ensure the survival of these species,” Melissa says.
As such, Melissa is dedicated to continued coordination with new and existing clients and partners on the conservation of terrestrial orchids. She also advocates to include orchids in restoration projects and habitat initiatives—an innovative approach that’s as rare in environmental services work as native orchids are in the wild.
Orchids. More than a stunning showpiece in Mother Nature’s collection, they’re a critical part of delicate ecosystems. They’re also a connection point for researchers, organizations, communities, and business. If you see an orchid in nature, leave it be and think of conservation and education efforts that are crucial to the plant’s survival in the decades to come.
About Melissa Curran
Melissa Curran specializes in vascular plant identification, ecological assessments, ecological restoration, and grant writing. She has extensive experience conducting detailed botanical inventories of plant communities throughout the upper Midwest, and her work has supported hundreds of transportation, commercial, utility, residential, industrial, and institutional projects.
About this article
This article is part of an ongoing series focusing on the value Stantec’s Greenlight program brings to clients, communities, and employees. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests annually to fund employee ideas that benefit our clients, community, and Company. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which celebrates and encourages creativity and innovation at work and in our work. Check back soon for another story in our Greenlight series.
Melissa Curran would like to express her gratitude for the support of the following individuals:
American Transmission Company
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Riveredge Nature Center
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Wisconsin Coastal Management Program