The Scientist Using Fire to Save Orchids From Extinction


On a scorching, humid Maryland afternoon in August 2017, Deborah Landau nervously scanned a clearing for indicators of life. Clad in tick-proof clothes from head to toe—uncomfortable on this climate however vital as Landau had twice earlier than contracted Lyme illness—she had been ready nearly a yr for this second.

The 53-year-old conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy who makes a speciality of uncommon plant species had taken an enormous threat the earlier yr. She had burned your complete space, within the hope of saving the Oxypolis canbyi plant, also referred to as Canby’s dropwort. There’s just one location in Maryland the place this white-flowering plant grows: within the Delmarva Bay, an space of ephemeral wetlands which might be moist within the fall and winter, and prairie-like and dry in the summertime and spring.

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

Landau lives and breathes vegetation, and her work on the conservancy performs an important position in protecting a number of the nation’s rarest flora alive. Through managed burns, cautious and painstaking monitoring, and heading off would-be poachers, Landau is accountable for not solely guaranteeing they keep alive—however that they thrive. We consider orchids as tropical vegetation, however a quantity are discovered proper right here within the U.S., and a number of the world’s rarest are positioned in a protect in Maryland. Just Landau and a small group of devoted conservationists and volunteers are all that stand between these vegetation and extinction.


Months earlier than Landau’s humid August go to, she had been at the exact same web site, drip torch in hand, prepared to ship hearth dancing throughout the land in entrance of her.

In the previous, the wetlands would have had fires sweeping by way of them, protecting them open for these flowers to develop. But a historical past of stringent hearth measures, thanks to a misunderstanding of the position hearth performs within the ecosystem, has meant that if a wildfire does begin naturally, the flames are extinguished earlier than they will burn as nature meant. That has allowed bushes and lengthy grasses to take over, creating an excessive amount of shade for the flowers to thrive. After intense lobbying, The Nature Conservancy was granted permission to perform a burn so as 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 mentioned.

She and her group got here up with a plan in order that solely the wetland would burn. They wanted a day when it had rained the day earlier than in order that the forest was moist and unlikely to burn. That would permit hearth to unfold by way of the grasses of the wetland with out inflicting unintended hurt to the forest. When a day with optimum situations arrived, Landau and her group suited up in fire-proof gear and set the bottom ablaze. They used the transition from grass to shady forest as a pure hearth break and minimized how a lot gas they utilized in such an ecologically delicate space.

As Landau and her group lit up the drip torches, the truth of what was about to unfold actually took form. Sitting in the midst of the meadow had been three Canby’s dropwort vegetation. Sending a wall of flames racing throughout the panorama, even after a day of rain, got here with actual dangers to the very vegetation Landau was making an attempt to save from extinction.

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

But figuring out the fireplace could be their solely salvation had led the group to this level, and so the burn started.“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 mentioned, recalling the day

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

As quickly as the fireplace was out, Landau ran to the patch the place that they had been and put her hand on the bottom.

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

But Landau had to wait 9 months to see if the vegetation grew again and flowered, a metric of whether or not the fireplace had completed its job. The very aim of the burn was to clear the realm, and Landau had an concept that the plant could 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 lastly returned to the burn web site to perform her survey is ingrained in her reminiscence. To the untrained eye, the sphere appeared like some other grassy forest opening. But to Landau, who scanned the panorama feverishly for indicators of the telltale white almond blooming flowers, it was the location of one thing spectacular. She instantly noticed the sprinkling of snow in the midst of the wetland, visibly bigger than the earlier yr—and a surefire signal that her dangerous burn had labored.

“There’s no counting needed,” she mentioned. “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 have been simply three vegetation. As of 2021, there are round 3,000 Oxypolis canbyi vegetation.

“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 round 30,000 acres in Maryland, and Landau is accountable for overseeing the plant species, working this system, and monitoring vegetation of curiosity. An integral a part of Landau’s work is managed burns, that are more and more utilized by conservation organizations and land managers as public and scientific opinion in the direction of hearth as a administration device shifts.

Last yr, Landau and her group had probably the most profitable burn season they’d ever had. When her group isn’t lighting fires, although, Landau is busy planning them by updating maps, setting goals primarily based on earlier burns, and drafting burn plans.

Rather a lot goes into organizing a burn just like the one she carried out final August, and Landau is accountable for ensuring every little thing goes in accordance to plan. Measurements of the conservancy’s land have to be exact, and each forest edge, grassy plain, and watershed have to be documented so as to plan out burn areas. Getting it unsuitable may imply entire areas go up in flames. It’s additionally crucial that Landau has the areas of the very vegetation she’s making an attempt to save, so she will observe their progress and develop conservation plans acceptable to the species.

A survey in the field looking at Canby’s dropwort (Oxypolis canbyi).

A survey within the discipline taking a look at Canby’s dropwort (Oxypolis canbyi).
Photo: Chase McLean

“We need to get approval from a lot of different levels,” she mentioned, “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 additionally essential she has coordinates in hand earlier than she heads out into the sphere. There’s hardly ever any sign within the areas she displays, and so she creates maps within the workplace and uploads them to her cellphone prior to setting out. It’s a giant change from her early work when she was in her 20s when, Landau mentioned, she spent quite a lot of time “getting lost” within the discipline. “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 commonly required to spend the night time within the discipline, as most of the websites are a two-hour-plus drive away from the workplace in Bethesda. Over her 20 years of working with the conservancy, (this yr marks her twentieth anniversary) she has realized 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 personal. On monitoring journeys, comparable to when she has to inspect one other uncommon plant—harperella—she’ll have a crew of round 5 folks together with her. The plant grows on the banks of a very clear river alongside Maryland’s Sideling Hill Creek.

“The only way you can monitor it is by literally walking in the creek,” Landau mentioned. “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 particularly the Cypripedium candidum, extra generally referred to as white girl’s slipper, she wants a small, rigorously chosen group as a result of they want binoculars to even spot the flowers. They’re a choose group of people that she makes use of repeatedly yr after yr. The group is instructed to flip off GPS capabilities on their telephones, to guard the key location.

The plant is very wanted by collectors, who will suppose nothing of stealing into the protect at night time and nabbing the flower. The white girl’s slipper is so-called for its bulbous, white oval petal, speckled with pink, which folds over to create a pouch, with the lip coated by a yellow petal that delicately drapes over the opening. The purpose the gorgeous plant continues to be on this space is that it’s so laborious to get to.

The river the place the orchid grows in proximity to sits a whole bunch of ft beneath the undulating western Maryland mountains. Dirt roads wind by way of farms and forest, however none make it to the river backside. The terrain is so steep that it’s less complicated for Landau’s group to wade by way of the river itself to entry the websites the place the flower grows.

A white fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis) with a butterfly landing on it.

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

It’s not a easy wade within the park, although; the group should additionally slide down a steep creekside, battle coarse undergrowth, scramble round rocks, wade by way of chilly streams, and eventually perch on a precarious ledge to allow them to scan the robust, unforgiving panorama with binoculars in hopes of sighting the elusive orchid. Luckily, it takes dedication to hunt for the white girl’s slipper, which is useful in protecting this fragile, enigmatic species protected.

Like the Canby’s dropwort, suppression of pure hearth cycles, main to an encroachment by woody vegetation and brush has contributed to pushing this flower to the brink of extinction. Residential growth, alterations within the watershed system, and competitors for sources with different invasive species have additionally made the probabilities of survival more and more slim.

And regardless of the challenges, generally probably the most decided of orchid poachers handle to find the delicately blossomed flower, leaving Landau to merely hope the collectors will look however not contact.

“I’m in a lot of rare plant groups on Facebook,” Landau mentioned. “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 requested permission to accumulate uncommon carnivorous pitcher vegetation on the jap shore of Maryland. Of course, Landau declined, however on one event discovered the individual driving out of the location the place the vegetation are positioned.

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

So Landau reached out to the person immediately.

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


Landau’s ardour and love for her land are overwhelmingly apparent and have been the driving force behind her a long time of labor. So, too, is her relationship with the orchids she’s preventing to preserve alive in a world more and more pushing them to the brink.

“I really do love them,” she mentioned. “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 20 feet [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 about how to elevate 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 contract multimedia journalist who covers the atmosphere and human rights. She’s primarily based in Los Angeles, and normally focuses on American West and Latin American protection.



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