The Scientist Using Fire to Save Orchids From Extinction

The Scientist Using Fire to Save Orchids From Extinction

On a hot, humid Maryland afternoon in August 2017, Deborah Landau nervously scanned a clearing for signs of life. Clad in tick-proof clothing from head to toe — uncomfortable in this weather but necessary as Landau had twice before contracted Lyme disease — she had been waiting almost a year for this moment.

The 53-year-old conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy who specialises in rare plant species had taken a huge risk the previous year. She had burned the entire area, in the hope of saving the Oxypolis canbyi plant, also known as Canby’s dropwort. There’s only one location in Maryland where this white-flowering plant grows: in the Delmarva Bay, an area of ephemeral wetlands that are wet in the fall and winter, and prairie-like and dry in the summer and spring.

“This plant is super rare, very imperiled,” said Landau. “I’ve spent many years opening this wetland back up and the population increased, but it was still struggling.”

Landau lives and breathes plants, and her work at the conservancy plays a vital role in keeping some of the country’s rarest flora alive. Through controlled burns, careful and painstaking monitoring, and warding off would-be poachers, Landau is responsible for not only ensuring they stay alive — but that they thrive. We think of orchids as tropical plants, but a number are found right here in the U.S., and some of the world’s rarest are located in a preserve in Maryland. Just Landau and a small team of dedicated conservationists and volunteers are all that stand between these plants and extinction.

Months before Landau’s humid August visit, she had been at the very same site, drip torch in hand, ready to send fire dancing across the land in front of her.

In the past, the wetlands would have had fires sweeping through them, keeping them open for these flowers to grow. But a history of stringent fire measures, thanks to a misunderstanding of the role fire plays in the ecosystem, has meant that if a wildfire does start naturally, the flames are extinguished before they can burn as nature intended. That has allowed trees and long grasses to take over, creating too much shade for the flowers to thrive. After intense lobbying, The Nature Conservancy was granted permission to carry out a burn in order to save the Canby’s dropwort species.

“It took years and years to get the approval and to figure out how to burn this site in an ecologically sensitive way,” Landau said.

She and her team came up with a plan so that only the wetland would burn. They needed a day when it had rained the day before so that the forest was wet and unlikely to burn. That would allow fire to spread through the grasses of the wetland without causing unintended harm to the forest. When a day with optimal conditions arrived, Landau and her team suited up in fire-proof gear and set the ground ablaze. They used the transition from grass to shady forest as a natural fire break and minimized how much fuel they used in such an ecologically sensitive area.

As Landau and her team lit up the drip torches, the reality of what was about to unfold truly took shape. Sitting in the middle of the meadow were three Canby’s dropwort plants. Sending a wall of flames racing across the landscape, even after a day of rain, came with real risks to the very plants Landau was trying to save from extinction.

“I was terrified when we were doing it,” she said. “I could’ve killed the entire Maryland population.”

But knowing the fire might be their only salvation had led the team to this point, and so the burn began.“All it took was three lines of ignition, and the wetland just wanted to burn, it was just screaming fire-adapted, the way these fuels carried was so beautiful,” Landau said, recalling the day

After years of planning, the burn was over in just 45 minutes. “It was almost anti-climactic, after all those years of planning,” she laughed.

As soon as the fire was out, Landau ran to the patch where they had been and put her hand on the ground.

“The soil was actually still damp, even though it had burned,” she said. “The seeds were protected.”

But Landau had to wait nine months to see if the plants grew back and flowered, a metric of whether the fire had done its job. The very goal of the burn was to clear the area, and Landau had an idea that the plant may thrive in fire-treated soil.

“It was very stressful,” she recalled. “I had a lot of second-guessing. You know, maybe I shouldn’t, maybe this is the wrong thing. Maybe I should go and wet the area first. But thinking it through. We knew it was a fire adaptive plant. We knew that this is probably why the plant was there in the first place, because historically there had been fires in the area and naturally it wouldn’t have gotten a little sprinkling of water beforehand. So we just did hands off. And we burned it.”

That August day Landau finally returned to the burn site to carry out her survey is ingrained in her memory. To the untrained eye, the field looked like any other grassy forest opening. But to Landau, who scanned the landscape feverishly for signs of the telltale white almond blooming flowers, it was the site of something spectacular. She immediately spotted the sprinkling of snow in the middle of the wetland, visibly larger than the previous year — and a surefire sign that her risky burn had worked.

“There’s no counting needed,” she said. “I counted, but I didn’t have to. It was quite an emotional moment. As a woman in the field I try not to be emotional, and I won’t but yes, oh, it’s, yeah, it absolutely was so gratifying.”

Before the burn, there were just three plants. As of 2021, there are around 3,000 Oxypolis canbyi plants.

“I literally spent five years planning that burn, and being told by our managers that you can’t burn this. And it worked. … It’s really just nature saying ‘you did the right thing.’ It really brings home the importance of this ecological restoration.”

The Nature Conservancy owns around 30,000 acres in Maryland, and Landau is responsible for overseeing the plant species, running the program, and monitoring plants of interest. An integral part of Landau’s work is controlled burns, which are increasingly used by conservation organisations and land managers as public and scientific opinion towards fire as a management tool shifts.

Last year, Landau and her team had the most successful burn season they’d ever had. When her team isn’t lighting fires, though, Landau is busy planning them by updating maps, setting objectives based on previous burns, and drafting burn plans.

A lot goes into organising a burn like the one she carried out last August, and Landau is responsible for making sure everything goes according to plan. Measurements of the conservancy’s land have to be precise, and every forest edge, grassy plain, and watershed must be documented in order to plan out burn areas. Getting it wrong could mean whole regions go up in flames. It’s also imperative that Landau has the locations of the very plants she’s trying to save, so she can track their progress and develop conservation plans appropriate to the species.

“We need to get approval from a lot of different levels,” she said, “and we have to make calls to adjacent landowners to let them know there’ll be a burn, figure out whether we need to work with partners as sometimes our borders are adjacent to state or private land.”

It’s also important she has coordinates in hand before she heads out into the field. There’s rarely any signal in the areas she monitors, and so she creates maps in the office and uploads them to her phone prior to setting out. It’s a big change from her early work when she was in her 20s when, Landau said, she spent a lot of time “getting lost” in the field. “I would have these big topography maps and roll them out in the field and try to understand where I was with my compass,” she recalled.

Landau is often required to spend the night in the field, as many of the sites are a two-hour-plus drive away from the office in Bethesda. Over her two decades of working with the conservancy, (this year marks her 20th anniversary) she has learned to pack “twice as much water as you think you’ll need” and dry socks “because there’s nothing more miserable than driving home for four hours in wet socks.”

Half the time, Landau goes out on her own. On monitoring trips, such as when she has to check up on another rare plant — harperella — she’ll have a crew of around five people with her. The plant grows on the banks of a particularly clean river along Maryland’s Sideling Hill Creek.

“The only way you can monitor it is by literally walking in the creek,” Landau said. “I just walk down the middle of the creek, with people on either side of the banks, and it’s six or seven hours of that. It’s a small plant, so you really have to be looking.”

When Landau is monitoring orchids, and in particular the Cypripedium candidum, more commonly known as white lady’s slipper, she needs a small, carefully chosen team because they need binoculars to even spot the flowers. They’re a select group of people who she uses regularly year after year. The group is instructed to turn off GPS functions on their phones, to guard the secret location.

The plant is highly sought after by collectors, who will think nothing of stealing into the preserve at night and nabbing the flower. The white lady’s slipper is so-called for its bulbous, white oval petal, speckled with pink, which folds over to create a pouch, with the lip covered by a yellow petal that delicately drapes over the opening. The reason the stunning plant is still in this area is that it is so hard to get to.

The river where the orchid grows in proximity to sits hundreds of feet below the undulating western Maryland mountains. Dirt roads wind through farms and forest, but none make it to the river bottom. The terrain is so steep that it’s simpler for Landau’s team to wade through the river itself to access the sites where the flower grows.

A white fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis). (Photo: Gabe Cahlan)
A white fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis). (Photo: Gabe Cahlan)

It’s not a simple wade in the park, though; the team must also slide down a steep creekside, battle coarse undergrowth, scramble around rocks, wade through chilly streams, and finally perch on a precarious ledge so they can scan the tough, unforgiving landscape with binoculars in hopes of sighting the elusive orchid. Luckily, it takes dedication to hunt for the white lady’s slipper, which is helpful in keeping this fragile, enigmatic species protected.

Like the Canby’s dropwort, suppression of natural fire cycles, leading to an encroachment by woody plants and brush has contributed to pushing this flower to the brink of extinction. Residential development, alterations in the watershed system, and competition for resources with other invasive species have also made the chances of survival increasingly slim.

And despite the challenges, sometimes the most determined of orchid poachers manage to locate the delicately blossomed flower, leaving Landau to simply hope the collectors will look but not touch.

“I’m in a lot of rare plant groups on Facebook,” Landau said. “And every now and again I’ll see my orchids. I know a couple people know where that site is, and they’ll scramble down and take a picture. I’ll reach out to them and very kindly, but personally say this is a private property, this is a rare plant, please respect the fact that we’re protecting it for a very good reason. And they usually understand.”

Landau has had run-ins with poachers, one who had asked permission to collect rare carnivorous pitcher plants on the eastern shore of Maryland. Of course, Landau declined, but on one occasion found the person driving out of the site where the plants are located.

“I notified the Department of Natural Resources, and they said they’ve got their eye on him,” she said. “But there wasn’t anything they could do.”

So Landau reached out to the man directly.

“I said no,” she quipped, impersonating a schoolteacher-like tone. “As far as I know, he hasn’t been back.”

Landau’s passion and love for her land are overwhelmingly obvious and have been the driver behind her decades of work. So, too, is her relationship with the orchids she’s fighting to keep alive in a world increasingly pushing them to the brink.

“I really do love them,” she said. “They’re so mysterious, so much is [happening] behind the scenes, underground. They are so tied in with the ecosystem. They need their pollinators. But you don’t see the microbial fungi although you know it’s playing a role, and the fungi is probably associated with the adjacent deciduous trees that’s 6.10 m [6 meters] away. They’re always an exciting find anytime you run across one. Even if it’s the 100th that you’ve seen that day.”

Landau can wax lyrical about her love of orchids for hours. Just don’t ask her for tips on how to raise them.

“I can’t grow them for the life of me. I have a horrible green thumb. I’m terrific in the field. Restoration is what I was made to do. When it comes to house plants? Forget it.”

Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist who covers the environment and human rights. She’s based in Los Angeles, and usually focuses on American West and Latin American coverage.

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