Tag Archives: orchid

Illegal orchid trafficking is largely ignored, and may lead to major conservation consequences

While most of the orchids sold worldwide come from legal sources, thousands of species are also sold on the black market — which may severely impact conservation

Image credits: Hao Svit.

Orchids are one of the largest plant families, featuring 28,000 currently accepted species. They’re also traded for a variety of purposes, being sold as ornamental plants, medicinal products and even food. Thankfully, most of them come from greenhouse-grown flowers and plants. However, it is believed that more and more orchids are harvested and sold illegally and unsustainably in more and more parts of the world. Families which have been picking orchids for generation are not the problem, but companies harvesting large swaths of flowers from the wild for local, regional and international trade can do dramatic damage.

Now, for the first time, researchers have carried out an international assessment of orchid traffic.

“In this review, we provide the first overview of commercial orchid trade globally and highlight the main types that involve wild-collected plants. Much of this trade is the result of illegal harvest meaning that it is little documented and is absent from official statistics, at the same time as being of growing conservation concern,” the study reads.

Plant blindness

Not all species are equal, the scientists write. The team reports that although on paper orchids seem protected many orchid species around the world are under threat from illegal and unsustainable trade. Dr Jacob Phelps of Lancaster University said:

“Orchids have been harvested from the wild for generations, but commercial trade in orchids is often being unreported, and so has garnered little attention. While many people think of orchids as only ornamental plants, orchids are also harvested, grown, and traded globally for use in a range of food products, as constituents within cosmetics, and traditional medicines.”

For starters, we need to better understand the situation and the impact that trade (both legal and illegal) is carrying out more detailed assessments of the conservation status of some species. Then,  it’s not only about the science: we need to start a conversation between traders, growers and, policymakers. The dialogue between these groups is a priority if we want to strengthen legal trade, dissuade its illegal version, and ensure a sustainable future for orchids.

Lastly, we should also address a phenomenon called “plant blindness.” Because plants are not as relatable as animals, they are often ignored in conservation projects and their role in biodiversity is often overlooked or underestimated. We need a cure for plant blindness, or the consequences might be far-reaching and unexpected.

Journal Reference: Amy Hinsley et al. A review of the trade in orchids and its implications for conservation. https://doi.org/10.1093/botlinnean/box083


If stem cells don’t grow as you want them to, just add a dash of parsley-husk scaffolding

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are investigating de-cellularized plant husks as potential 3D scaffolds which, when seeded with human stem cells, could lead to a new class of biomedical implants and tailored tissues.


Image via Pixabay.

We may like to call ourselves the superior being or top of the food chain and all that, but as far as design elegance and functionality is concerned, the things nature comes up with make us look like amateurs. Luckily, we’re not above emulating/copying/appropriating these designs, meaning that structures created by plants and animals have long and liberally been used to advance science and technology.

Joining this noblest of scientific traditions, UWM scientists have turned to de-celled husks of plants such as parsley, vanilla, or orchids to create 3D scaffolds which can be seeded with human stem cells and optimized for growth in lab cultures. This approach would provide an inexpensive, easily scalable and green technology for creating tiny structures which can be used to repair bits of our bodies using stem cells.


The technology draws on the natural qualities of plant structures — strength, porosity, low weight, all coupled with large surface-to-volume ratios — to overcome several of the limitations current scaffolding methods, such as 3D printing or injection molding, face in creating efficient feedstock structures for biomedical applications.

“Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants,” explains Gianluca Fontana, lead author of the new study and a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow. “You can pick the structure you want.”

“Plants are really special materials as they have a very high surface area to volume ratio, and their pore structure is uniquely well-designed for fluid transport,” says William Murphy, professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, who coordinated the team’s efforts.

The team worked together with Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ staff and curator John Wirth to identify which species of plants could be used for the tiny scaffolds. In addition to parsley and orchids, the garden’s staff also found that bamboo, elephant ear plants, and wasabi have structures that would be useful in bioengineering for their shape or other properties. Bulrush was also found to hold promise following examinations of plants in the UW Arboretum.

Human fibroblast cells growing on decellularized parsley.
Image credits Gianluca Fontana / UW-Madison.

Plants form such good scaffolds because their cellular walls are rich in cellulose — probably the most abundant polymer on Earth, as plants use it to form a rough equivalent of our skeleton. The UWM team found that if they strip away all the plant’s cells and chemically treat the left-over cellulose, human stem cells such as fibroblasts are very eager to take up residence in the husks.

Even better, the team observed that stem cells seeded into the scaffolds tended to align to the scaffold’s structure. So it should be possible to use these plant husks to control the structure and alignment of developing human tissues, Murphy says, a critical achievement for muscle or nerve tissues — which don’t work unless correctly aligned and patterned. Since there’s a huge variety of plants — with unique cellulose structures — in nature, we can simply find one that suits our need and use that to tailor the tissues we want.

“Stem cells are sensitive to topography. It influences how cells grow and how well they grow,” Fontana added.

“The vast diversity in the plant kingdom provides virtually any size and shape of interest,” notes Murphy. “It really seemed obvious. Plants are extraordinarily good at cultivating new tissues and organs, and there are thousands of different plant species readily available. They represent a tremendous feedstock of new materials for tissue engineering applications.”

Another big plus for the plantfolds is how easy they are to produce and work with, being “quite pliable […] easily cut, fashioned, rolled or stacked to form a range of different sizes and shapes,” according to Murphy. They’re also easy and cheap to mass produce as well as renewable on account of being, you know, plants.

So far, these scaffolds seem to hold a huge potential. They’ve yet to be tested in living organisms, but there are plans to do so in the future.

The scaffolds have yet to be tested in an animal model, but plans are underway to conduct such studies in the near future.

“Toxicity is unlikely, but there is potential for immune responses if these plant scaffolds are implanted into a mammal,” says Murphy.

“Significant immune responses are less likely in our approach because the plant cells are removed from the scaffolds.”

The full paper “Biomanufacturing Seamless Tubular and Hollow Collagen Scaffolds with Unique Design Features and Biomechanical Properties” has been published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials.

Biologists thrilled to find first night-flowering orchid

Somewhere off Papua New Guinea, scientists uncovered the world’s only known orchid to produce flowers at night, only to wither down in daytime.

Out of over 25.000 thousand species of orchids, only a handful of them flower in the evening, but this one, Bulbophyllum nocturnum, is the first and only one that does it at night. Botanist André Schuiteman from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK is a member of the team which described this unique flower and hailed it as “another reminder that surprising discoveries can still be made”, even nowadays, when we sometimes think we know everything there is to know on our planet.

“The discovery of Bulbophyllum nocturnum is important for various reasons,” André says. “It demonstrates that there are still gaps in our knowledge of tropical orchids and poses interesting biological questions: Why did night flowering evolve in this particular species and not in other orchid groups? Why does this species flower at night?”

There’s a good reason why generally flowers bloom at day: they rely on insects pollinating them, and insects are active during the day. This problem was solved by the orchid in case – using moths as pollinators; moths are active during the night.

Scientists are still unsure as to why these purple flowers has chosen this nocturnal habit, but, as always, it is most likely that nature has simply found an unoccupied niche and occupied it.