by Kristen Minogue
Lumbricus rubellus, a European earthworm that is now one of the most common in the eastern U.S. More than 10,000 years ago, Pleistocene glaciers wiped out native earthworms. Today virtually all earthworms in the U.S. north of Pennsylvania are invasive. (Holger Casselmann)
Most gardeners consider the sight of an earthworm writhing in the dirt a good omen. The slimy invertebrates chew up and churn up the soil, making it easier for vegetables and flowers to access nutrients.
But for wild orchids, they’re more of a menace. Earthworms could prevent roughly half a forest’s orchid seeds from even germinating, ecologists from Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Johns Hopkins University discovered in a study published online this March in Annals of Botany Plants.
The small size of orchid seeds (they are barely the size of dust grains) makes them particularly vulnerable. As earthworms chew up forest litter, they ingest orchid seeds as well. When that happens, two things can keep the seeds from germinating: One, the process of passing through an earthworm’s gut can render them unviable. Or two, if the seeds survive ingestion, they can end up buried so deep that they can’t access the fungi they need to germinate and grow. As a general rule, deeper soils are much less likely to have those fungi.
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