New Orchid Species Found in Flowering UC Collection

Photo: Ornithidium donaldeedodii, a newly discovered type of orchid, is on display at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. This species was originally found in the mountains of Haiti, where logging threatens forest wildlife.
Nathan Yan/Staff
Ornithidium donaldeedodii, a newly discovered type of orchid, is on display at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. This species was originally found in the mountains of Haiti, where logging threatens forest wildlife.





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Each time James Ackerman looks at the newly discovered species of orchid housed at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, he sees the old friend who came upon the rare flower in the mountains of Haiti only by chance.

The plant was found by Donald Dod-a research associate at the University Herbarium who passed away in 2008-in the Haitian mountains of Pic Macaya National Park in the 1980s, but only recently was it declared a distinct species, due to a specimen found in the garden.

Though Ackerman, a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico, said he and Dod had long suspected the plant was unique, they would have to wait nearly 20 years for the plant to flower and a discovery to be made.

A DNA analysis based on a piece of the plant Dod had given Ackerman before his death indicated the plant was a distinct species. But without a flowering specimen Ackerman said he "would be unwilling to describe it as new without the flowers."

Before Dod passed away, he donated his personal collection of nearly 50 orchids to the botanical garden, including the newly discovered species.

Ackerman checked in on the status of the mystery orchid which, to his surprise, had erupted into red petals studded with a hint of orange.

"Don had that plant for twenty years or so, and it never flowered for him," Ackerman said. "I said to myself 'Man, (the botanical garden) must have a great setup if they got it to flower.'"

The plant-now known as Ornithidium donaldeedodii-blossomed last May at the botanical garden, according to an article detailing the discovery published in the international orchid journal Lankesteriana.

Though the plant had been housed in the botanical garden since the mid-1990s, Holly Forbes, curator at the garden, said that there were no staff dedicated to researching or identifying new plants.

"We don't have that kind of financial luxury," she said. "Everyone is stretched really thin, our main goal is to keep everything healthy."

According to Paul Licht, the Botanical Garden's director, more than 13,000 of the rare and endangered species that comprise only part of the world's largest collection of wild plants go unexamined.

Because the garden is an official plant rescue center for plants confiscated by U.S. customs, Licht said they receive dozens of specimens a year, many without the proper collection necessary to ascertain a point of origin.

"There are a lot of stories in 13,000 different kinds of plants," he said. "What we hope is that we learn some of these before the plants disappear."

The discovery of the plant is especially important because of its origin, according to Brent Mishler, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and director of the University and Jepson Herbaria.

The forests of Haiti are subject to the increasing pressures of logging, Mishler said.

"Those forests are just full of species we have not identified, it just drives us crazy," he said. "It's like a really valuable library or art museum burning down."

But Ackerman has faith that the location of the orchid, in the Massif de la Hotte mountain range, will save it for a while.

Until then, he said, he will have to return to the garden to examine the rest of Dod's collection.

"There may be more (new species) in the garden, he said. "I just haven't gotten around to looking at them."

Tags: UC BOTANICAL GARDENS


Contact Javier Panzar at [email protected]



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