The Southeastern Center for Conservation works to preserve native orchids and other endangered species

Behind the dazzle of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Orchid Daze, these labs are home to thousands of species of orchids and other plants, many of them endangered

Southeastern Center for Conservation
The propagation lab cultivates rare orchids and other native plants.

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

If you step into the atrium of the Fuqua Orchid Center during the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s annual Orchid Daze exhibition (open now through April 14), you’ll be inundated with a jaw-dropping array of orchids, all blooming in explosive color. But enter the building through a side door, and you’ll find something else entirely: a spare hallway lined on one side by a glass wall, beyond which you can see a sterile-looking laboratory stacked with shelves and unassuming cabinets.

This is the domain of the Southeastern Center for Conservation. While these labs may lack the dazzle of the orchid show nearby, they are bursting with life, home to thousands of species of orchids and other plants—many of them endangered—native to the Southeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Central America. Growing in sealed plastic containers or tucked away in temperature-controlled seed banks, these species are an insurance policy against catastrophic climate change and human-propelled biodiversity loss—keys to the plant ecology of the entire Southeastern region.

“Our collection focuses on the genetic diversity of wild species,” says Dr. Emily Coffey, who leads the garden’s conservation and research department. “So if a population goes extinct in the wild, we have enough genetic material here to preserve that diversity.”

Dr. Qiansheng Li, a horticulturist with expertise in endangered species preservation, runs the conservation center’s propagation lab. Another lab works on plant genetics, while a small army of specialists usher seedlings into full-grown plants. Beyond Atlanta, field biologists monitor and research wild plant species across several Southeastern states, sometimes collecting specimens for further study and preservation at the center. The program is largely grant-funded; the garden covers much of the administrative overhead as well as some on-site costs.

Li’s lab serves two purposes at the botanical garden. The conservation arm is focused on preserving threatened or endangered species native to the Southeast, Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America, including orchids, magnolias, and oaks, all affected by deforestation, climate change, and human activity. A smaller arm propagates plants for the botanical garden’s living collection, including dozens of rare orchid species.

Southeastern Center for Conservation
Dr. Qiansheng Li and his team grow each plant in a nutrient-rich bed of agar gel.

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has one of the largest public orchid collections in the world, with about 2,000 species between the display greenhouses and nearby storage facilities. But many of the more common species are purchased commercially, and to get hundreds of spectacular orchids blooming simultaneously during Orchid Daze, the garden relies on outside vendors. It’s the rare orchids—like the opulently scented Stanhopea and the graceful, footed Gongora—whose propagation requires the conservation center’s expertise. “We’re growing the plants that nobody would normally have access to,” says Coffey. “Because they are extremely challenging to grow.”

Despite being one of the largest plant families, with nearly 30,000 unique species worldwide, orchids have evolved byzantine reproductive strategies—one reason, along with overharvesting and habitat loss, that so many orchids are critically endangered. “Orchid seeds are very hard to germinate in the wild,” says Li. ”They need a special kind of fungi that provides seeds with the sugar they need to germinate.” Complicating matters, some orchids are symbiotic with only one kind of fungi. Li’s colleague is studying orchid fungi to try to replicate the process in the lab, but for now the team relies on an artificial method developed by the American botanist Lewis Knudson in the 1920s.

Switching to lab slippers and donning a surgical mask, Li goes into the lab where orchids and other rare plants are propagated. From a large refrigerator he produces a clear plastic cylinder, about the size of his palm. Suspended on a bed of black gel is an opaque smear of what looks like dust; they are seeds, Li says, at least a million of them. A small label identifies the date and file number of the specimen, as well as the name: Acineta superba, an orchid with speckled purplish blooms, native to Central America. The gel, called agar, provides a potent mix of nutrients to stimulate germination, including potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. “Sometimes we’ll add banana powder, coconut water; it just depends on the species,” Li says.

He slides the Acineta superba seeds back into the fridge and withdraws another clear cylinder. Several months further along, this sample contains only a few thousand seeds, now germinated into furry nubs resembling couscous. From a rack of trays on the other side of the fridge, Li shows the next stage of growth: a handful of small green shoots, their roots immobilized in an agar-solidified medium with black, activated charcoal, tips just grazing the top of the plastic pint container. After two years in the lab, these Phragmipedium sargentianum—a dramatic soil-growing orchid from the coastal mountains of Brazil—are finally ready to move to the nursery greenhouse. Once there, they will take another two to three years to produce flowers. “Growing orchids from seeds requires serious patience,” Li notes wryly.

For those lacking patience or capacity, stealing can be an appealing option, a problem botanical gardens encounter regularly. “People have walked right out of the garden with stolen plants,” says Coffey. Rare orchids can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market, either for breeding or for personal collections. Some species in the Atlanta Botanical Garden are so uncommon, their names can’t be published, to avoid attracting attention.

Risk aside, the Fuqua Orchid Center displays rare orchids you’re unlikely to see in other public collections, like Polycycnis muscifera, an elegantly arched yellow orchid from Central and South America that is pollinated by a species of shiny green bee. You’ll also find the four “lost orchids” of South Florida, which are extinct in that region; in 2018, the Southeastern Center for Conservation worked with Cuban scientists to bring specimens from Cuba back to the garden for propagation and preservation, with hopes of someday reintroducing them back to the Florida wilds.

“The lost orchids are an example of how precarious some of these species are in the wild,” Coffey says. “Overharvesting and habitat loss are actually causing species extinction.” North America is home to over 200 species of orchid—nearly half of them in Florida—but more than 60 percent are threatened or endangered. The Southeastern Center for Conservation plays an important role in protecting those species, as do the public-facing botanical gardens: Shows like Orchid Daze allow tens of thousands of people to enjoy the splendor of orchids in an ecologically sustainable way, while funneling money into the behind-the-scenes work of keeping the entire Orchidaceae family alive. “We’re all a part of the same mission here,” Coffey says.

Inside the Fuqua Orchid Center, a family stops to ogle a wall draped with brightly spotted indigo vandas—common, but still spectacular. Li slips past them, his eye on something no regular visitor would ever notice: a seed pod, dangling from a Dendrobium bigibbum. He smiles. “There are millions of seeds in there,” he says, pointing to the pod. “When it’s ready, we’ll collect them to propagate new plants, and do this all over again.”

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.