Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

October 15, 2008

Ball State University's nationally renowned orchid collection has doubled in size and significantly increased its diversity as a result of a 1,000-plant gift from a retired botanist.

The Wheeler Orchid Collection and Species Bank, located in Ball State's Christy Woods and managed by the Department of Biology, is now home to a collection previously owned by Charles Bracker, a retired Purdue professor of botany and plant pathology who lives in West Lafayette, Ind.

"Charles' collection is well-known for its size and diversity of species," said Wheeler Collection curator Cheryl LeBlanc. "This addition is very important because it adds to the depth of our collection. It is a wonderful array of colors, sizes and shapes. Plus, the orchids come from all over the world."

A series of trips to West Lafayette were made earlier this year to acquire the collection, which was housed in four environmentally controlled rooms in Bracker's home. Bracker's plants had been integrated into the Wheeler's 600-square-foot orchid greenhouse.

The 70-year-old Bracker said his declining health did not allow him to properly care for his collection, which was started by his late wife in the 1980s after a visit to Hawaii. He contacted Ball State because of the strong reputation of the Wheeler Collection as well as LeBlanc's dedication to maintaining it.

"People I talked to said my collection would be well-cared-for at Ball State," he said. "It was sealed after talking with Cheryl on the phone. I could tell the person she is and the passion she has for plants. In fact, everyone I talked with had good things to say about her."

Bracker also knows that the Wheeler Collection also serves as a designated plant rescue center, occasionally receiving orchids that have been imported illegally and confiscated.

Ball State's collection is open to the public, emphasizing conservation and education using its diverse array of 800 different species and about 300 hybrid orchids.

"Our collection offers just a glimpse into nature's diversity," LeBlanc said.

She said the orchid family is the largest of the flowering plants with nearly 30,000 species known to exist. The number of orchid species equals about four times the number of mammal species, or more than twice the number of bird species. It also encompasses about 6 to 11 percent of all seed plants.