How controlled burns are bringing back a rare Maryland orchid

The Oxypolis canbyi plant, also known as Canby’s dropwort is an extremely rare orchid which only lives in the Delmarva Bay, part of Maryland’s wetlands. Generations ago, regular wildfires would have swept through this area, clearing out space for the flowers to thrive, but wildfire suppression in the area to protect nearby residents has put the orchids in danger of extinction.

Deborah Landau, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to make a plan to save the orchids and in 2017, she had finally mapped out the perfect burn area, gotten permission to conduct the burn, and was ready to go. She decided to burn the day after rains, to reduce the risk of rapid spread, and mapped out an ideal growing area where Canby’s dropwort stood the highest chance of taking root.

Today, four years after the burn, beautiful white flowers have popped up across the field. “I literally spent five years planning that burn and being told by our managers that you can’t burn this. And it worked. … It’s really just nature saying ‘you did the right thing.’ It really brings home the importance of this ecological restoration,” Landau tells Earther.

The Nature Conservancy owns 30,000 acres in Maryland, and since 2017, Landau has successfully conducted other burns to encourage ecosystem balance. Back in 2017, there were just three dropwort plants; today there are over 3,000. It’s tedious work, and she still has to contend with poachers who want to sell the valuable orchid, but her work has demonstrated how critical organic natural processes are to the health of ecosystems. Every fire, rain, and organism plays a role, even if it’s a tiny one.

Landau summarizes, “They are so tied in with the ecosystem. They need their pollinators. But you don’t see the microbial fungi although you know it’s playing a role, and the fungi is probably associated with the adjacent deciduous trees that’s 20 feet away.”

Image source: Maryland Biodiversity Project

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