Orchids As Teachers?

When they think about it, most people realize rather quickly that life on Earth depends on plants. The oxygen that we breathe, the food that we eat, clothes, fuel, building material, paper, medicines, etc., all originate in the plant kingdom. It really is redundant to ask: “What can be more important to us than making sure we maintain these resources in a sustainable way if life as we know it is to prevail for coming generations?”

Strange as it may seem, this irrefutable fact does not always resonate with our actions in a convincing way. All too often, we read and hear about depleting resources and endangered plant and animal species. This demonstrates that we fail in our role as stewards of the environment. I am convinced, however, that most people realize this but may feel a bit helpless in not knowing what to do about it. It is like being inside a running wheel of which we have lost control. Where can we look for guidance?

To answer this question, let’s look around and see if we can find somebody or something that does a better job than ourselves with regards to these issues. Is there anybody or anything that can show us how to survive on this planet in a sustainable way? How far do we need to go to find this true “Survival Prophet”?

Well, actually, not far at all. How about the greenhouses at Selby Gardens? Our collections are teeming with little prophets in all possible shapes and colors. We call them orchids! Take a break in your daily race and stroll through our beautiful display house. Watch and listen carefully and you may “hear” the orchids speaking to you in hushed but sincere voices. What are they saying? They tell you that orchids represent a highly successful life form. They prove this by their age (probably more than 100 million years), and by being the largest plant group on the planet that has adapted to almost all possible environments through highly-diverse life dynamics. How did this happen? What are their secrets?

The reason for the success of the orchid family is complex but can be partially explained by some basic (or true) principles: orchids adapt to the environment, they don’t change it as we do with little regard for the consequences. Orchids utilize other organisms without destroying them. We, on the other hand, often destroy and kill other life forms with little concern for their long-term survival. Orchids live in sustainable populations, which means that there are no more plants than Nature can support. This is probably the trickiest subject to approach and the most difficult problem to solve, but sooner better than later we really need to address the issue of our own population growth.

The natural resources on our planet are limited. Simple mathematics tells us that with an expanding population, each individual will have smaller and smaller shares. Is this where we want to go, or do we want to find ways to create sustainable conditions for all life forms? Do we engage and become active in solving problems, or do we just want to let go and see what happens?

Selby Gardens is launching a botanical collaboration with the National Biodiversity Center in Bhutan, Asia. There are many reasons why this is a very important and exciting project for both institutions and countries. Even though people have been botanizing the Himalayan region for centuries, remote areas are still virtually unknown to modern science, particularly in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

By focusing on orchids, our proven Masters of Survival, we will not only have a chance to find new species but also to learn more about the environmental health and the status of biodiversity in the entire country. The simple fact that much of Bhutan’s natural resources are intact and protected, and the forests are filled with a healthy flora and fauna, demonstrates that the people of this tiny country have a wise attitude towards Nature. Compared with the neighboring countries that have been clear-cut and depleted, the Bhutanese culture has adopted a different approach to life. Maybe we, as representatives of a lifestyle that exhausts natural resources, can learn something from those who have proven they can exist in a more sustainable way?