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Conserving The Queen of Sheba  

Only growing in the south-west of Western Australia, the stunning Queen of Sheba orchid (Theylmitra variegata) boasts a single dark green, spiral-shaped leaf and up to five glossy, red, purple or violet flowers. 

Historically, this beauty grew in the heart of Perth, but a loss of habitat through clearing eradicated many populations, and Theylmitra variegata It is now restricted to just a few small and isolated populations between Bunbury and Albany, which have suffered from trampling due to foot traffic and poaching in recent years.

Racing to save this vibrant species from extinction, orchid researchers at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) and Kings Park and Botanic Garden (KPBG) in Perth have together made a major conservation breakthrough by successfully germinating and growing Theylmitra variegata

The two lab groups, led by Dr Noushka Reiter (RBGV) and Dr Belinda Davis (KPBG) have been working together across the continent, with field assistance from Keith Smith, Dr Ryan Phillips at Latrobe University and volunteers. By joining forces, they have been able to optimise propagation techniques and establish permanent populations of the Queen of Sheba at both botanic gardens for the purpose of conservation. 

Orchids rely on specific fungi to germinate their microscopic seed, making some species extremely difficult to grow in cultivation. However, the team was able to meticulously extract the symbiotic fungus Theylmitra variegata relies on from the roots of a wild plant, and grow the fungus in a petri dish in the lab before adding precious Theylmitra variegata seed. 

“We were thrilled to discover and replicate the optimum nutrition and conditions to grow this iconic and endangered orchid in the lab,” says Dr Noushka Reiter, leader of the orchid conservation team at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. “As a result, we now have insurance populations at both botanic gardens and will be in a position to introduce the Queen of Sheba back into the wild in the coming years.”

The beautiful plants the teams have grown will be used for seed orcharding, and eventual introduction back into the wild.


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