Saving Orchids: Species Survival in a Changing World

Saving Orchids: Species Survival in a Changing World

Will our grandchildren still be able to enjoy our beautiful planet’s current biodiversity at the end of this century? Philip Seaton asks how we can safeguard biodiversity for future generations.

"Whilst the world is belatedly waking up to the unfolding climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis doesn’t receive the same amount of attention."

Will my grandchildren still be able to enjoy our beautiful planet’s current biodiversity at the end of this century? Whilst the world is belatedly waking up to the urgency of addressing the unfolding climate crisis, the emerging biodiversity crisis still doesn’t receive the same amount of attention. Television coverage focuses primarily on animals, with plants merely providing a green backdrop – yet it has been estimated that two out of every five plant species are now threatened with extinction.

How can we overcome this ‘plant blindness’? With their exotic aura, orchids have the potential to act as flagships for plant conservation. Not many people know that those long thin black vanilla ‘beans’ are the seed pods of an orchid, or that there are around 50 orchid species found in the UK. With around 30,000 species, orchids make up around 10% of the world’s flowering plants, with more new species being discovered each year.

In principle, the answer to the problem of rapid biodiversity loss is straightforward: stop the destruction of the forests and establish more biological reserves, particularly in the biodiversity hotspots. But what can someone do who resides in the UK, when most of the action (or inaction) is taking place in faraway places?

Having set out as an amateur orchid grower in the early 1970s, I soon became interested in growing orchids from seed, and undertook part-time research into the problems of orchid seed storage. My interest in seed as a conservation tool continued, and I gave presentations at a number of international orchid conferences. Eventually I thought the time was right to apply for a Churchill Fellowship, to learn more about orchid conservation Thus it was, armed with bad Spanish, that in 2000 I travelled to Cuba, Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador for a total of nine weeks.

In 2004 I took early retirement from my job as a biology lecturer and wrote my first book, Growing Orchids from Seed with Margaret Ramsay from Kew. The following year I was invited to travel to Madagascar to advise on orchid seed storage. In 2007 Kew was awarded funding from Defra’s Darwin Initiative, with the aim of setting up a global network of orchid seed banks in seventeen countries rich in biodiversity, but with limited funding for biodiversity conservation and I became the project manager. Timing is everything, and certainly the project would not have been possible without the internet and email, but neither would it have been possible without the connections I had made through my Churchill Fellowship, helped by a now somewhat improved Spanish! Our first workshops were held in Chengdu, China and Quito, Ecuador.

Having spent more than 30 years as a biology lecturer in adult education, my focus is on communicating the importance of conserving orchid biodiversity by giving talks, writing articles and delivering workshops teaching people how to grow orchids from seed. I run a small orchid lab in a local school, providing pupils with an opportunity to develop valuable practical skills.

I have been extremely fortunate in having had the opportunity to travel the world promoting orchid conservation, and meeting many of the wonderful people who are equally passionate about conserving orchids. Seed banking can act as an insurance policy against losses of species in the wild, and provides opportunities for future reintroductions... Since writing Growing Orchids from Seed, I have co-authored Growing Hardy Orchids, and written two more books for Kew about orchid cultivation, and I have just finished writing a book entitled Saving Orchids: Species Survival in a Changing World, with my friend and colleague Dr Lawrence Zettler in the USA. It is due to be published jointly by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the University of Chicago Press early in 2025.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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