Biodiversity & conservation of orchids: The importance of documentation from their natural habitats

orchid species existing in India varies from 1,141 to 1,600. Northeast India, a biodiversity Hotspot, sustains high number of orchid species about 856. Amongst them, 34 species of orchids are identified as the threatened plants of India

The Orchidaceae is one of the largest and highly evolved families of angiosperms on earth, consisting of nearly 25,000 species with more than 850 genera. Due to their range of diversity in shape, size and colour of flowers and leaves, characterized by distinct floral morphology, pollination mechanism, association with unique fungal partners and miniscule seeds they are consider to be highly advanced family in monocots. They are classified into saprophytic, terrestrial, epiphytic and lithophilic. They are usually perennial herb, racemose inflorescence, with sympodial stems and simple leaves. The seeds are dispersed with the help of wind. Orchidaceae have been quite successful in term of evolution. At the same time, they are rare and endangered which means not only be rare, but there is a clear threat to its continued existence. It means the habitat is disappearing from deforestation, forest fire, overexploitation of the species and undoubtedly the climate change.

The estimated number of orchid species existing in India varies from 1,141 to 1,600. Northeast India, a biodiversity Hotspot, sustains high number of orchid species about 856. Amongst them, 34 species of orchids are identified as the threatened plants of India and many are endemic to different states of this region. About 300 species belonging to 69 genera of the family Orchidaceae have been reported from Manipur.

Orchids, believed to have evolved in this region, form a very noticeable feature of the vegetation. Highly value and rare orchid species from Phalee and its neighbouring region are collected, documented and curated in a group called Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee, a unique citizen science activity of Phalee BMC Technical Team ondocumenting flora and fauna with a global significance, with India Biodiversity Portal. However, most of them are less than 50 plants.

Phalee BMC Technical Team is engaged in long-term work to conserve and preserve not just living plants and gene pools but also the physiology and culture attached to them. This collection is a repository of knowledge and a reference tool for authenticating botanical components and catalogued with scientific botanical and local names.

Orchids are more than just wild plants in this hilly region of North-East India. They are inextricably linked with culture and heritage. Symbolism and metaphors associated with orchids are credited to have begun with our ancestral and infuse traditional-cultural thoughts. The great majority are found in forests, where they usually grow on trees. They are frequently transplanted/relocated near the home and traditional tree post to use as a time keeping and larger divisions of time (Calendar). As such they are used to indicate agro-season, some are for matrimonial, and some are for prestige and some are for cultural symbols.  However, there is limited information for medicinal uses. Nowadays, it has become one of the most commonly cultivated flowers in this region.

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Figure 1: Some of the rare orchids whose populations are less than 30 as per the Phalee BMC Survey and documentation in Phalee village. Image courtesy: Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee. They are documented in our founded group India Biodiversity Portal.

Deforestation still occurs on a massive scale for agriculture, jhum cultivation and traditional firewood and the forests disappear, so do the orchids before they are fully explored. Moreover, they are lost in wild fire and still illegally traded. These rich orchids that has endured for millennia is fragile, and increasingly vanish from the wild so do the words and knowledge that this community have about them. One of the sad things is that many of those disappearing forests have barely been explored by scientists. To make things worse, numerous orchid species are burnt down and destroyed by firewood cutting from the wild which remain undiscovered. Orchids, like other wild species, are vulnerable to the impact of climate change and habitat loss. Conservation and preservation efforts become much more meaningful in the prevailing situation where the zoonotic diseases are more likely to increase due to habitat loss and climate change. Beyond the direct and immediate consequences of  Coronavirus disease 2019 focus has also started shifting towards the emerging infectious diseases and their links with biodiversity loss, human activities, vulnerability of global supply chains and issues of sustainability.

The Orchids collections, recording and conservation have been well established since 2014 by an Orchid lover Ng Betterson with two major intentions. The very first reason is to preserve the great varieties of the local Orchids, and secondly, to create awareness among the general public about this wonderful creation of nature. Some rare species and other unidentified rare species belonging to different genera of the family Orchidaceae have been documented and under intensive observation at Betterson Mini-orchidarium (Figure 1) which include highly threatened species of orchids specified in schedule VI (plants) of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Now, this village boast the greatest number of orchids collection in Ukhrul where every household rear or keep two or more orchids. Stepping into the village, you will find all the orchids at your own pace to a fascinating paradise evoking the sights, smells and sounds of nature.

Table 1: Some of the orchids conserved at Phalee Mini-orchidarium as well as documented and curated in our website.

Scientific nameBlooming seasonRemark
Arundina graminifoliaSepFrequent
Ascocentrum ampullaceumAprRare
Bulbophyllum spp.MayFrequent
Bulbophyllum beccariiSepRare
Cymbidium iridioidesJul- AugRare
Coelogyne barbataSep-DecRare
Coelogyne cristataOct- NovRare
Coelogyne flaccidaAugRare
Coelogyne nitidaAug-SepRare
Dendrobium chrysanthumJul-AugRare
Dendrobium crysotoxumMay-JunCommon
Dendrobium denudansAugRare
Dendrobium farmeri paxtonAprCommon
Dendrobium thrysiflorumAprRare
Dendrobium fimbriatumMayCommon
Dendrobium formusaMayCommon
Dendrobium aphyllumAprCommon
Dendrobium longicornuAprRare
Dendrobium nobileAprCommon
Dendrobium ochreatumApr-MayFrequent
Dendrobium primulinumSepRare
Dendrobium moschatumAprCommon
Dendrobium williamsoniiAprilRare
Dendrobium heterocarpumApr-MayCommon
Dipodium pandanumAprRare
Epidendrum ibaguenseApr-MayRare
Epidendrum radicansAprRare
Eria coronariaAug- SepRare
Eria vettataApr-MayRare
Eulophia spp.Mar-AprRare
Exacum spp.Jul-AugRare
Hebenaria dentataAugRare
Neogyna gardenaria0ct-NovRare
Nevillia spp.Jul-AugRare
Oberonia bicornis Lindl. Rare
Paphiopedilum hirsutissimumMayRare
Papilionanthe vandarumAprRare
Pecteilis susannaeSepFrequent
Phalaenopsis taenialisSepRare
Pinalia spicataAugCommon
Phaius tankervilleae (Banks) BlumeApr- MayRare
Rananthera imschootianaOctRare
Rhynchostylis retusaJun-JulFrequent
Thunia albaJunFrequent
Vanda coeruleaOctCommon
Vanda stangeanaApr-MayRare
Vanda testaceaMayRare

Additionally, we study about the traditional knowledge: how to find, harvest and grow orchids, as well as awareness of orchids in arts and culture expressions. We looked at the relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity by examining changes in knowledge of orchids in the rural population too. Phalee BMC Technical Team records what is there before it extinct and to preserve for study by future generations. We always work closely with local counterparts to aid in situ and ex situ conservation, that is, conservation by cultivation and seed-banking. We are concentrating our fieldwork on various aspects but our botanical knowledge is still sketchy at best. One of our unique character of our work is that we provide those documented species to those who need for Research, Propagation and Medicinal purpose on request.

Apart from Beautiful hills, clean water, greenery landscape, running clouds, Ukhrul is best known for rich flora and fauna and culture, and its Hilly region is rich in ornamental species like orchids, ferns, oaks (Quercus spp.), bamboos, Melastoma spp., Hedychium spp., rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), etc. It is the home of the endemic population of Shiroi Lily (Lily mackliniae sally), the state flower of Manipur. The missing link in the serenity can be fulfilled by Biodiversity richness and orchids. Demonstrating that a particular area is home to endangered species also provides solid arguments to protect the area. Orchids acts as a symbol of our national heritage and culturally important plant. These beautiful orchids have been placed amidst wild state in order to give complete natural ambience taking visitors as close to nature as possible. The whole variety is preserved in a village compounds together with other varieties. This gives full certificate to Phalee that it is a hub of rich biodiversity in Ukhrul which is documented, protected and preserved.

Ng NgashangvaRainforest Biodiversity of Phalee ngashangva.ng@gmail.com, phaleebmc@gmail.com

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