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In Atlanta, an expanded botanical mission

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is among the public gardens working to ensure the survival of threatened and endangered plants.

By Emily BadgerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2008

The Kentucky lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium kentuckiense) is a plant of special interest to conservationists at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden

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Atlanta

Jenny Cruse-Sanders had just returned from a week of trekking through the Florida Panhandle in search of Torreya taxifolia, a scraggly conifer that looks like a Christmas tree and smells sort of like tomatoes.

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The tree exists only in that northern sliver of Florida, which butts right up to the Georgia border. Botanists in the area noticed after World War II that the torreya was dying off. Within another 15 years, reproductive-age adult trees were entirely gone – all because of a disease experts are still struggling to identify 40 years later.

Ms. Cruse-Sanders, the director of research and conservation at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, was looking for the trees along with a group of plant pathologists from the University of Florida. What they found were decades-old torreyas that were only a few feet tall. They weren’t reproducing in the wild, so Cruse-Sanders took clippings, enclosed them in moss and plastic wrap, and brought them back to Atlanta to try to get them to reproduce.

If the disease is ever identified – an undertaking that requires the coordination of plant doctors, soil experts, land managers and conservationists – Cruse-Sanders’ new trees could be reintroduced into the Panhandle.

“I ask people this question – and it’s not an obvious question – ‘Why put these resources into one tree?’ ” Cruse-Sanders says. “I think it’s part of the puzzle. If you were to ask me what is important about torreya, I would say, ‘Tell me a species you’re willing to give up.’ ”

Cruse-Sanders often stops to ask the question – why are we doing this? – that underlies the expansive conservation resources and time that go into the sometimes microscopic results behind the scenes at the botanical garden. The answer, she says, is that the garden and others like it are expanding their mission to be a part of the solution to the 21st century’s biggest challenges in climate change, habitat destruction, and species extinction.

The conservation staff here is focusing on a small collection of rare plants: the torreya, the carnivorous pitcher plant, and the Florida dancing lady and Kentucky lady-slipper orchids.

Cruse-Sanders will bolster the torreya’s chances of survival by repotting the clippings and growing them into healthier trees than would exist in the wild. But other endangered plants are growing here through less traditional means.

In 2002, the garden built a tissue culture lab, a brightly lighted, sterilized room that more closely resembles a chemist’s laboratory than a plant nursery. In it are growing thousands of orchids, each living on a nutrient-rich, gel-like medium in a small container.

“You won’t see flowers in this room,” says Matt Richards, the garden’s orchid center horticulturist.

Some of these orchids have been in the lab for a decade without developing so much as a leaf, testifying to the painstaking process of reproducing some of nature’s most difficult plants.

Mr. Richards is growing orchids from dustlike seed collected in the wild – a state park in Florida and a solitary patch of private land in Georgia. He will eventually return the plants to both of these sites, completing a conservation cycle that entirely bypasses the public grounds that botanical gardens are generally better known for.

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