Students study orchid conservation in China

These articles are part of our Summer Sojourns 2014 series highlighting summer adventures of FIU students.

Jason Downing and Shan Wong spent two summer months in China studying orchid biology and conservation under Hong Liu, an ecologist in the Department of Earth and Environment who specializes in rare plant restoration, including endangered orchids, in China and the United States.

From the bus window, the endless expanse of green and blue was surreal, free from modern obstructions. Other-worldly limestone pinnacles, each one different from the other, were shrouded in mist and covered with lush tropical vegetation. The next mountain pass revealed a hidden valley and a small village with rice patties being tended by farmers and their water buffaloes. It was hard to believe – I was really in China.

As part of the National Science Foundation’s East Asian Pacific Islands Summer Institute Program (NSF EAPSI), I spent two months this summer studying orchids in Southwest China. The region is a world orchid hotspot, with several hundred native species (For comparison, Florida has 87 species, about half of the US total). Orchids have been revered in China for thousands of years, playing a prominent role in the country’s history, traditional medicine, art, and literature. But here, as in many parts of the world, orchids are facing the same threats from habitat loss and climate change. So the opportunity to participate in orchid research and conservation in this region was a dream come true.

In 2006, the completion of the Longtan Reservoir Hydro-dam inundated the low elevation areas along the Hongshui River in Guangxi Province. In response, dozens of species of wild orchids were moved to a higher elevation site in the nearby Yachang National Orchid Reserve. The movement of species by humans beyond their natural ranges in response to climate change or habitat loss is called assisted colonization, and it is a new and controversial conservation measure. The dam has provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the assisted colonization of orchid species in China.

My task was to examine the changes, if any, in the mycorrhizal fungi associations of the translocated orchids. Because all orchids require these fungi to germinate and grow, understanding the dynamics of these plant-fungus associations will be critical to orchid recovery efforts, especially as climate change continues. We chose to focus on four translocated species with different ecological niches: the slipper orchids Paphiopedilum hirsutissimum and P. dianthum, the boat orchid Cymbidium bicolor, and Geodorum eulophiodes, one of the rarest plants in the world.

To begin my research, I collected root and soil samples for each species from natural populations in Guangxi Province, and from the translocated populations at Yachang Reserve.  This field work in steep and muddy mountain rainforests was both challenging and rewarding, and would not have been possible without the help of local rangers, my FIU advisor Dr. Hong Liu and FIU undergraduate Shan Wong, and Chinese Academy of Sciences graduate students Wang Xilong and Jessie Han.

After completing the field sampling, I traveled to Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in neighboring Yunnan Province, where I stayed for the last month to do lab work. Located on 1125 hectares (2780 acres), XTBG is a world class research institute and botanic garden, with more than 13,000 tropical plant species in their collection. Using modern molecular and microbiological techniques, we screened the root and soil samples to identify the fungi being utilized by the orchids. My research host, Dr. Gao Jingyun, is an orchid ecologist and professor at XTBG and CAS, and has collaborated with FIU’s Hong Liu on orchid conservation efforts in the Yachang Reserve since 2012. We are now analyzing the lab data, and will use the results to inform future conservation efforts for these and other orchid species.

In addition to providing a rewarding research experience, my time working in China allowed me to better understand Eastern culture and lifestyles, and to network with Chinese colleagues. Thanks to the NSF EAPSI program, and the Biology and Earth & Environment departments at FIU, I had the exceptional opportunity to advance orchid conservation, while promoting U.S. and Chinese understanding and collaboration in the future.

-Jason Downing, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Earth and Environment

Jason Downing (left)  and Shan Wong (right) spent their summer months with Hong Liu (center) studying orchid conservation in southwest China.

Jason Downing (left) and Shan Wong (right) spent their summer months with Hong Liu (center) studying orchid conservation in southwest China.


I am an FIU undergraduate, majoring in environmental science with a specialization in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management. During the summer of 2014, I was awarded the Kelly Foundation Scholarship which helped me to engage in botanical studies in Guangxi and Hong Kong, China.

I was able to partition my time between two different projects with a convergent goal in mind: preserving orchid biodiversity and furthering regional conservation efforts.  I had the opportunity with Dr. Hong Liu in the field and at Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden (KFBG), a non-governmental organization (NGO). I felt the need to return to my country to both apply what I have learned and experience firsthand the types of preservation, protection, an restoration activities that are being successfully conducted.

My first engagement took place with Dr. Hong Liu‘s field team, who carried out field surveys of wild orchid populations of selected species in four national nature reserves in Guangxi Province, which is the 3rd most biologically diverse province.

The nature reserves we visited have stunning limestone dominated landscape and are rich in wild orchids. There were plenty rough moments while traveling in these remote areas of Guangxi. It was quite challenging to me, being a clumsy climber and at time feeling awkward navigating in and around the forests. I thought about giving up several times while climbing a high and steep hill within the Yachang National Orchid Nature Reserve, but was so happy that I did not! I was rewarded with a spectacular view at the end of the hike.

Also, when we found which orchid varieties were going to be targeted, I felt that learning the proper collecting procedures for these samples would be an important and very useful practice – demonstrating how I could best meet orchid conservation standards. After a long day of hiking, we had to catch a late night bus from the reserve back to Nanning, where we could store our soil and orchid root samples properly.

The only bus available for the ride back was one with dirty, smelly and narrow beds, which made sitting up or laying down uncomfortable. The 5- hour night bus ride seemed endless! The next day, however, I was very proud of myself because I was able to help with the sample collecting under such challenging field conditions. Gaining experience in collecting the samples in the field has been an invaluable technique which I continued to practice in Hong Kong.

At KFBG, I was able to assist in seven field studies taking me to Fei Ngo Shan, Kuk Po, Tai Mo Shan, Ho Chung, Wong Chuk Yeung and Sai Wan area. We collected two types of samples from the field: vouch specimen, which is saved for herbarium, and leaf sample, which is saved for the DNA barcoding and future study. I was also involved in the DNA barcoding procedures in the lab to conduct the DNA analyze which is a cutting edge molecular technique to identify plant species. Then, I was able to conduct fruit collection, seed harvesting to process samples for horticulture preservation. Needless to say, while at KFBG, I was immersed in biological and biotechnological applications that I think will be the key for guiding the future of my orchid conservation research.

I have gained my knowledge on orchid conservation study and other skills like hiking skill after taking these two trips although the trips were challenging physically and mentally at times. It was an honor to be able to spent time tracking and trudging through forests and mountain sides with such a wonderful team of experienced and knowledgeable individuals who afforded me countless opportunities to contribute, learn, and gain intimate understanding of orchid conservation efforts in my native home land. I look forward to doing a similar internship again in the summer of 2015. These experiences offer priceless insight to my career as a budding future scientist and natural conservationist.

– Shan Wong, undergraduate student in the Department of Earth and Environment