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A New Opportunity to Study Plant Conservation at the Arboretum

Close up of cypripedium candidum orchid

An Interview with Instructor David Remucal

If you’ve been to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum you know what a special place it is. But did you know that it’s home to one of the largest orchid research programs in the country? (Yes, orchids!)

We caught up with the Arboretum’s curator of endangered plants, David Remucal, to learn more about his new plant conservation course and how terrestrial orchid research found a home here in Minnesota.

Unlocking a Puzzling Plant

Close up of Platanthera praeclara orchid

“Orchids take up a lot of our time,” Remucal says, “not so much because they are particularly special or endangered, although they are both, but because there is so much unknown about them, especially terrestrial orchids. A lot of research needs to be done in order to preserve and protect them.”

This is largely due to how orchids, specifically terrestrial orchids found in the state, are grown. “You can’t really grow orchids from seed,” he explains. “They have several requirements for germination, including fungi that are likely different between species… You can germinate without the fungi in a lab, but there is no guarantee that they will survive in the wild.”

Orchid research dates back over 100 years, but it has focused mainly on tropical species, the ones more popular with amateur botanists and poachers. Terrestrial orchids are more of an investment because they are trickier to work with.

A Course for the Next Generation of Conservationists

Remucal’s course, APS 5950 Plant Conservation at Botanic Gardens, aims to cover not only the fragility of orchids but the importance of plant conservation overall. Half of Remucal’s course takes place in a classroom, while the other half involves hands-on study at the Arboretum. By engaging with other botanic gardens, students will be able to compare the Arboretum’s methods and strengths against other conservation programs.

David Remucal

“We’ll cover scientific and nonscientific conservation methods," he says. "The scientific methods will be based around data and published literature, things like practical research from labs or greenhouses, stuff we do in the field, like collecting seeds, transplants, and rescues.” 

Nonscientific methods, he continues, will focus on developing support for conservation—monetarily, philosophically, and publicly—something the Arboretum is perfectly suited to deliver. 

With no prerequisites, anyone interested in plant conservation or working with plants can take the course, as well as MPS in Horticulture students. It will provide different “perspectives of what plant conservation can look like and what botanic gardens can do.” It will give students a closer look at what conservation can offer in terms of career paths or paths of study for the next generation of scientists. 

“We want to inspire students to have a conservation ethic; that’s something that’s been sorely lacking in plant science. There are a lot of ways we can develop that support, as simple as bringing in some of these rare plants to the Arb and reminding people of what’s out there in Minnesota that they don’t often get to see, even if they’re out hiking in the wild.”

The Arb Captivates the Community

Even if you’ve never set foot on any of the 1,200 acres of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, you’ve probably heard of it. 

The Arb, as it’s known, has “a very large and varied landscape that allows for onsite protection of larger species like trees,” Remucal says. His group also works on other plant species like western Jacob’s ladder, Leedy’s roseroot, and the Minnesota dwarf trout lily. 

"We want to inspire students to have a conservation ethic; that’s something that’s been sorely lacking in plant science."

Plant conservation staff member potting plants

“Having the Horticulture Research Center (HRC) at the Arb is important. We couldn’t have done any of the orchid work we’ve done without the HRC. There are so few people doing this kind of orchid research anywhere that we already have one of the largest terrestrial orchid programs in the country.” 

Another, perhaps even more important nonscientific factor, is the incredible support that the Arb has across the state. There is a lot of inherent pride about it in Minnesota, says Remucal, even if people have never visited. 

This widespread base of support, he adds, makes it easier to build enthusiasm among visitors. He has found that the favorable public view often helps their work run more smoothly; they are not seen as an adversary to other organizations. “It is an unexpected side effect of our popularity. People trust us.”

Look for APS 5950 Plant Conservation at Botanic Gardens in summer 2021!