Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Ban lifted on importation of moth orchids

Our scientists get all sorts of requests to assist in various matters where the identification of species of plant, algae or fungus is required. Quite often these cases have important implications for legal cases or for health issues. Recently our plant pathology team were asked by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and the Federal Department of Agriculture to sort out a sensitive issue relating to the importation of Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids) from Taiwan. These spectacular flowers are grown in massive numbers in Taiwan and exported all around the world including Australia. You have probably seen the blooms at your local florist where they are quite popular.

In 2011 a new strain of a species of a Fusarium fungus on these orchids was recorded and described by Taiwanese scientists. The fungus causes a root and base rot of the orchid, causing the leaves to yellow and rot-off, and eventually killing the plant. The authors defined the fungus as a new and unique strain and, as a result, an importation ban on Phalaenopsis orchids and their flowers had been put in place. The concern was there was thought be the potential to import a strain of a Fusarium fungus that was exotic to Australia and so could be a threat not only to our native orchids but also to our own horticultural industries based around different species of orchids.

Our plant pathologists have high level expertise in this group of fungi and using DNA fingerprinting techniques they were able to show that the strains discovered and documented in Taiwan were if fact the same as those collected two decades ago in research completed at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust on orchid pathogens that occur in the Sydney region. We were fortunate that our collections of these fungi were still viable after this long and able to be grown and analysed.

This necessitated numerous high level meetings between our scientists and the officials from Biosecurity Australia regarding the consequences of these results. The final decision was to lift the ban on imports and to allow trade in the flowers to recommence. The ban has now been lifted, imports allowed and the threat of Australia being taken to international trade courts avoided.

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