SCH students “repopulating” the Wissahickon with native Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid seedlings

by Karen Tracey
Posted 11/3/21

When members of Wissahickon Garden Club’s conservation committee learned about Longwood Garden’s work to reintroduce the Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid locally, they teamed up. Springside Chestnut Hill students took to the woods adjacent to the McCausland Lower School and gave the seedlings a new home.

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SCH students “repopulating” the Wissahickon with native Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid seedlings

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Last week, 15 Ziploc bags containing 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 more than 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. They also raised money, awarding one $1,000 grant to SCH environmental science teacher Lisa Queeno, and another $1,000 for Zale at Longwood Gardens. Representatives from the local garden club presented those checks this past week.

Orchids are the largest family of plants in the world with more than 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 (Cypridium), 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 Cypridium 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,” Queeno said. “Given that they can grow for hundreds of years, SCH Pink Lady’s Slipper orchids could, quite literally, improve forest health for generations.”

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