Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid seedlings find a new home at SCH

This past week 15 Ziploc bags containing 15 delicate, spindly Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid seedlings made their way from the Longwood Gardens greenhouses to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s environmental science class, carried in a nondescript bin by Dr. Peter Zale, Director of Conservation, Plant Breeding and Collections at Longwood Gardens. Then, after a deep classroom dive into the importance of the orchid species, how they are endangered in the Wissahickon, and why they are being reintroduced locally, students took to the woods adjacent to the McCausland Lower School and gave the seedlings a new home.

This initiative is the result of a partnership that started over three years ago between the Wissahickon Garden Club (WGC), Longwood Gardens, and the school. In 2019, when the Pink Lady’s Slipper was thought to have disappeared from the Wissahickon, citizen scientists discovered three flowering plants at an undisclosed location in the park. This discovery prompted active interest in the orchid’s conservation and repopulation of the plant in the Wissahickon.

When members of WGC’s conservation committee learned about Longwood’s work to reintroduce the orchid locally, they teamed up with Zale to help facilitate. They also designated fundraising dollars to advance this important work with a grant for SCH environmental science teacher Lisa Queeno and one for Zale at Longwood Gardens. Representatives from the local garden club were on deck this past week to present a $1,000 check to each of the organizations to support this ongoing work.

Orchids are the largest family of plants in the world with over 30,000 species and are considered a flagship species for conservation throughout the world. An important “spokesperson” species, they broadly inspire interest from the community at large with their charismatic flowers and engaging life histories.

Along with the seedlings, the students also planted several Mountain Laurels. The official state flower of the Commonwealth, the mountain laurel is known to be a symbiotic plant to the Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium), helping support its growth in the wild. 

As part of the environmental science elective, students at SCH will conduct a longitudinal study on the orchids’ development and share their data with Longwood Gardens. They will monitor the Cypripedium seedlings they planted using GPS coordinates and will track the date of first emergence, the number of shoots/leaves/flowers, leaf area using imaging on a monthly basis, and the date the plant enters dormancy. Also in question: at what age and in what season is it optimal to reintroduce the Pink Lady’s Slipper?  

Reflecting on the experience, junior Winslow Tracy shared,

“It’s cool to know the work we are doing and the data we are collecting will impact the park that I love so much.”  

The seedlings that journeyed from Longwood Gardens have had one year of controlled growth in greenhouse conditions. Longwood Gardens will continue to cultivate additional seedlings with the hope that additional reintroduction research plots can be established next year and beyond using older plants with more seasons of nursing at Longwood. This could provide important information about the best age at which to plant Pink Lady’s slipper seedlings for conservation efforts.

"We are proud to help support this important initiative,” shares SCH teacher Lisa Queeno. “It's so heartwarming to see young students work with seasoned botanists! I hope our efforts to restore this important species to the Wissahickon will be successful. Given that they can grow for hundreds of years, SCH Pink Lady’s Slipper (PLS) orchids could, quite literally, improve forest health for generations. As a biologist, I am of course excited to see the data. It'll be very cool to see the growth of PLS and its impact on forest health parameters over time. Stay tuned for updates on PLS@SCH!" 

Photos show the site of the planting, the size of the seedlings, and Dr. Zale and Ms. Queeno receiving the grant from the Wissahickon Garden Club.

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