Wild medicinal orchids and their conservation
Wild medicinal orchids are part of Chinese medicine along with other plants. It is a tradition that dates back thousands of years.
In general, orchids are consumed alone or mixed with other herbs in infusions or soups. The health benefits vary by species. Some are found with properties for the stimulation of the immune system, hypertension and cerebrovascular accidents.
Many of these medicinal orchids are among the more than 40 species of the genus Dendrobium. In recent decades, orchid supplies Dendrobium wild-sourced medicinal products have declined considerably and some species are already hard to find.
This is happening in the limestone regions of Guizhou and Guangxi, the main area where the Dendrobium it has grown naturally, due to a combination of over-harvesting by collectors and habitat loss.
orchid nature reserve
I am an ecologist and lead several research projects in Southwest China, where the country’s first orchid nature reserve is located in an area with a highly diverse range of orchid species. In 2017, China published a Biodiversity Red List of endangered species found within its borders.
In said list, it included 68 threatened species of Dendrobium, but did not mention overexploitation as a factor in its decline. Other researchers and I have shown that the trade in wild-collected orchids is very active in China.
In my opinion, the Chinese Red List of Biodiversity significantly underestimates wild harvest as a threat to orchids.
The government has taken encouraging steps on this issue but its actions present challenges for the conservation of many wildlife species, such as balancing use and conservation.
The fate of orchids Dendrobium of China offers clues as to what China is willing to do to conserve its many endangered plants and animals.
Wild medicinal orchids, from forests to cities
Wild medicinal orchids are often collected by farmers for sale to middlemen or in rural markets. The plants are then moved to larger medicinal plant trading centers or markets in major Chinese cities.
Total trade volumes for medicinal orchids are not well documented, but are likely to vary by species. While the available records showed that the trade in medicinal species of Dendrobium it peaked in the late 1980s at about 660 metric tons per year.
The most recent evidence suggests that the Dendrobium Wild medicinal is traded across the borders between China and Southeast Asian countries. This is probably because plant populations are declining in China.
Industrial cultivation of Chinese medicinal orchids
Although China faces many well-known sustainability challenges, it is working to position itself as an environmental leader. This is especially true for the protection of wildlife: in 2019, China sought and won the role of hosting the scheduled 2021 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. That meeting, originally located in the Chinese city of Kunming, was held in Montreal in late 2022 after several delays due to COVID-19.
Actions on orchid conservation reflect this impulse. On September 7, 2021, China published a revised list of national key protected wild plants, which included about 1,100 species. The new list added 291 species of Chinese wild medicinal orchids, in stark contrast to the previous version, which did not protect any orchids.
The 96 species of Dendrobium chino are on the list, which means that their collection is subject to national regulations on the protection of wild plants. It remains to be seen how effectively these rules will be enforced.
Animal and plant production
China has also encouraged the production of commercially valuable animals and plants on farms to meet market demand and reduce pressure on wildlife. For orchids and many other species, this strategy has produced mixed results.
Growers are now growing orchids Dendrobiumincluding Tie Pi Shi Hu (D catenatum), one of the fourfairy herbs” which are documented in ancient herbal books. This process is mainly carried out in industrial greenhouses. In 2020, China produced 33,000 metric tons of orchids Dendrobiumwith an estimated market value of ¥12 billion RMB, or about $1.7 billion USD.
This production has only partially met market demand, and orchid consumers view cultivated orchids as an inferior option. As a result, these plants command a much lower market price than their wild counterparts.
Gastrodia elata, an endangered orchid used in traditional Chinese medicine, is a good example. Mass artificial culture techniques for this species were developed as early as the 1980s, but have not ended with wild collection.
Orchids grown in the forest
An alternative would be to prohibit the use of these threatened orchids. But bans on the use of other wildlife species have produced different results. Depending on factors such as market demand and the biology of the species, bans may not be necessary or desirable.
It has been more productive for China to supplement mass orchid cultivation by growing high-value medicinal and edible plants under the canopy of well-managed native forests. These forms of cultivation, which could be called “grown in the forest”, are ecological because farmers can adopt harvesting methods that allow plants to persist. Ginseng grown in the US forests is an example of this approach.
Dendrobium cultivation grown in forests it is now popular in Guizhou and Fujian provinces. The provincial government is promoting it as a way to reduce poverty.
Forest farming helps growers save money by eliminating or reducing the need for pesticides. In turn, chemical-free farming allows them to sell their plants in organic and other niche markets. It also helps conserve target species and the forests where they grow, and preserves the diversity of native forests. The promotion of forestry agriculture can generate interest in forest management and raise awareness about native plants.
This strategy also has some disadvantages. Plants grow more slowly under tree canopies than in shady greenhouses, and yields are generally lower. This means that forest-grown products must sell at a premium to be profitable. For now, I think these semi-wild farming operations should be considered experimental.
Ecological and social impacts of orchid cultivation
Conserving high-value plants while supporting local livelihoods will require officials to think about ecological and social impacts. If China can find a way to achieve sustainable use of medicinal orchids, it could set a model for conservation for other countries facing similar challenges.
This article was written by Hong Liu, Professor of Earth and Environment at Florida International University. Republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.