26 September 2023

Rare orchid back from the brink

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Researchers from Kings Park and Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria have made a major breakthrough by growing one of Australia’s most beautiful and endangered native orchids.

The Queen of Sheba (Theylmitra variegatepictured) is found only in the wild in the south-west of Western Australia.

It has a single dark green, spiral-shaped leaf and up to five glossy, red, purple or violet flowers. The plants in this research project were propagated from seed collected near Albany and Bunbury.

Research Scientist at Kings Park, Belinda Davis said orchids relied on specific fungi to germinate their microscopic seed, making some species extremely difficult to grow in cultivation.

The Queen of Sheba did not give up her secrets easily,” Dr Davis said.

“Despite our best efforts, germination continued to result in low seedling numbers.”

She said the team was eventually able to extract the symbiotic fungus from the roots of a wild Queen of Sheba plant and then grow the fungus in a petri dish in the laboratory, before adding orchid seeds collected from wild plants.

“The breakthrough came from determining the nutritional requirements of the fungus for the first time, ensuring its survival and ultimately the survival of the orchids in laboratory conditions,” Dr Davis said.

“With this new understanding, the team has been able to germinate Queen of Sheba seedlings in their hundreds for the first time.”

She said the two teams optimised propagation techniques and established permanent populations of the Queen of Sheba at both Kings Park and Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

“These plants will be used for seed orcharding and eventual introduction back into the wild,” Dr Davis said.

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