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Rare British orchid gets police protection from overzealous collectors

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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the lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)Police protection for a plant? It makes sense if it’s one of the last wild examples of its species and collectors are willing to pay rhino horn–level prices for its flowers.

That’s the situation for the lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). Just a few of the wildflowers remain in Britain following decades of habitat loss to real-estate development and overharvesting by orchid collectors. One of the plants—in fact, the last flowering example of the plant in the wild in Britain—exists at Silverdale Golf Club in Carnforth, England, where it is visited by hundreds of plant enthusiasts every year. As the 100-year-old orchid prepares to bud some time in the next two months, British police are stepping up efforts to protect it from collectors, who have twice already tried to steal it.

In 2004, a collector tried to uproot and steal the entire plant but got away with only a small part of it. Last June, another thief cut off a large segment of the orchid, leaving just six flowers behind.

The Lancashire police aren’t going to let that happen again. Security measures being set up to protect the plant include hourly foot patrols and a chemical security tag that will help identify any cuttings if they make it to market. The police department is also considering setting up a 24-hour closed-circuit TV system to monitor the plant, at a cost of £5,000 ($7,450). The plant has been circled with crime-scene tape to call attention to the seriousness of the situation.

Because this plant is so rare in the U.K., natural pollination has never been observed. Propagation must be carried out by hand, which is an extremely delicate task. The plant does still exist in the wild in mainland Europe, but even there it is rare, and the species does not take well to transplant efforts, making attempts to import new plants into the U.K. next to impossible.

Duncan Thomas, wildlife officer for the Lancashire police force, told the Daily Telegraph that this particular lady’s slipper orchid "is an incredibly important plant, having survived for over a hundred years" when the species was thought to be extinct in the U.K. "People travel from all ends of the country on what is almost a pilgrimage to view the plant in bloom and are often overcome with emotion at the sight."

All attempts to induce more of the orchids to grow in the wild in Britain have so far failed, although legitimately made cuttings, raised in greenhouses, have sold for upward of $7,500 each.

Photo: Cypripedium calceolus via Wikipedia.

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  1. 1. quincykim 9:10 pm 05/18/2010

    "Overzealous collectors"? These people know how rare this plant is, and snag them anyway. Why not go with the rhino horn analogy and call them poachers.

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  2. 2. way2ec 11:24 pm 05/18/2010

    Glad to know that so many are taking the threat of this plant’s extinction (at least in the wild) so seriously. I agree with quincykim, poaching is an appropriate term, but somehow that word doesn’t express how wrong is stealing the last of any species, animal or plant.

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  3. 3. hawkeye 11:41 pm 05/18/2010

    Nice sentiments, but too little too late. The species is toast, since even at this late stage, they don’t have the resources to maintain constant security against the jackals that want to finish it off.

    Folks tend to get upset when I describe the human race as a disease organism infecting the earth, but how else can you describe a species that seems to destroy every other form of life with which it comes into contact?

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  4. 4. mmccullough10 8:14 am 05/19/2010

    This is a beautiful flower! I do understand why people are collecting it. Too bad it doesn’t grow from a seed that could be sold in stores so that people could grow them themselves.

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  5. 5. Asa Kreevich 4:09 pm 05/20/2010

    Cyprepedium calceolus may be rare in Britain but in many parts of North America, it is common. I have seen thousands of plants growing along roadside ditches in New Brunswick, Canada. So why the fuss? By the way, orchid gardeners know that C. calceolus is also one of the easiest of the hardy, native orchids to cultivate….I really question the premise of this whole story.

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  6. 6. Asa Kreevich 4:13 pm 05/20/2010

    Contrary to what the Scientific American article states, Wikipedia (in the article cited as the source of the picture used) says that by 2003 successful re-introduction had resulted in hundreds of plants present in the wild in Britain.

    Does Scientific American employ any fact-checkers?

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  7. 7. Liparis01 2:24 pm 05/24/2010

    There are in fact more sites with this species growing wild. This is actually the only site that is known about, the others are secret. They use this site for public visits.
    I am actually gob-smacked – as we say here – at the quoted price of $7,500 upwards for a propagated plant. Absolute tosh! Where do they get their facts from. Cultivated plants are common to buy in specialist nurseries and on eBay at about 20 – 25 .
    Ive never read such drivel.

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  8. 8. mmccullough10 8:00 am 05/25/2010

    I definitely agree! True if you see them along side of the road there isn’t a sign that says "don’t take" or "no trespassing" the flowers are in the open. They are just like the wild balck berries in the woods. So, then I believe that people should be able to take these flowers just like the wild berries in the woods.

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