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.

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

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.

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.

Other plants will stay at the garden as part of a living collection, ensuring that, for example, certain species of pitcher plants will always exist even if insects or condos overwhelm them in the wild.

“We’re seeing the case that even plants we might consider relatively common today may be tomorrow faced with a new, introduced insect or disease that moves in, or climate change that poses a threat that we wouldn’t necessarily have been prepared for,” said Pamela Allenstein, the manager of the North American Plant Collections Consortium at the American Public Gardens Association.

About three dozen botanical gardens and arboretums across the county have joined the program to catalog their living plant collections and share responsibility for ensuring the existence of individual species into an uncertain future.

In Atlanta, Cruse-Sanders’s fieldwork with the torreya and Matthews’s work with the dancing lady orchid are now considered as crucial to the garden’s mission as maintaining its public conservatory.

“Life, we’re finding, is all connected,” Ms. Allenstein says of the need to save individual plants. “The web is inextricably woven, and once we start pulling at individual threads, then they start becoming unraveled, and we’re discovering that it’s connected to more things than we’ve really imagined there might be.”

Breeding endangered frogs among the plants

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, conservation work extends beyond plants to amphibians, although most visitors never see the garden’s collection of marsupial frogs, glass frogs, monkey frogs with opposable thumbs, and rare frogs from Chile and Panama.

About 15 endangered species are breeding in captivity in a biosecure “pod,” a repurposed shipping container located on a back lot of the garden’s grounds.

The frogs are facing many of the same threats as the rare plants the garden is trying to save, including habitat destruction and new diseases. But the world’s amphibians are dying off at a particularly alarmingly rate.

“There were over 6,000 living or extant species of amphibians, and we could well lose half of those in the next 30 years if we’re not careful,” says Danté Fenolio, the garden’s amphibian conservation scientist.

The garden originally installed a display of charismatic poison dart frogs to lure visitors into taking a greater interest in their natural surroundings. But amphibians have since become a major – although often unknown to the public – element of the conservation work here. Dr. Fenolio believes that Atlanta is the only botanical garden in the world with such an amphibian focus.

Ironically, frogs today are dying because of the very evolutionary feature that once allowed them to move onto land as amphibious fish. Amphibians both breathe and take in water through their skin – but that also means their versatile, moist skin is particularly susceptible to the bacteria and fungi that are now invading their natural habitats.

“Most folks don’t know that amphibians are in trouble, and I know that a lot of people wouldn’t outwardly tend to care,” Fenolio says. “But there are reasons that everybody should care.”

Most notably, the chemicals frogs secrete through their skin to combat such bacteria have offered leads in developing antibiotics for humans.

“We’re losing a huge, huge pharmaceutical storehouse for humanity,” Fenolio says. “Although I would propose that there are other reasons far more important for keeping amphibians around.”

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