Biologist: Orchids are not just for corsages

Lisa Wallace (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Old Dominion University)
Lisa Wallace (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Old Dominion University)

Lisa Wallace is all about diversity – the diversity of orchid species, that is.

Biologists disagree about the number of orchid species, but it’s between 25,000 and 30,000, said Wallace, the J. Robert Stiffler Distinguished Professor in Botany at Old Dominion University. Her work attempts to further uncover the distinctions among species and maybe even discover more.

“The exact number of species is not important,” she said. “What is important is that we develop a better understanding of biodiversity in the world.” And that, Wallace said, could lead to such benefits as new medicinal applications.

Wallace tries to puncture misconceptions about orchids: “People think of them as these exotic flowers you have as corsages. They don’t know we have a lot of species of orchids growing right here in Hampton Roads. They’re not something you normally see on your walk through the neighborhood or on a nature trail. You have to get off the trail to see them.”

And they’re not all “big and showy,” she said. Some, for instance, can be only a few inches tall and feature green or brown flowers that are easy to miss.

In fact, from a biological perspective, “they’re not a lot different from us,” Wallace said. “They have the same kinds of cells. They have a lot of the same genes, and they function in the same way.”

Wallace has traveled across the United States, Canada and Iceland in search of orchids. But she’s equally happy doing research in her genetics lab, where she relishes the “surprise of the unknown.”

Wallace came to Old Dominion in 2017 as an associate professor of biological sciences from Mississippi State University, where she had taught and researched for 11 years.

“We were fortunate to attract a plant ecologist of Lisa’s stature,” said Christopher Osgood, chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences. “She is now at the nucleus of an effort to expand and update plant sciences at ODU. As the Stiffler chair, Lisa provides credibility as we recruit top young scientists.”

Starting in the fall, he said, “she will lead an effort to hire a cluster of wetlands scientists to join our faculty and anchor regional efforts to study the impacts of climate change on our wetlands’ plant and animal communities.”

Wallace received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of William & Mary, but at the time she didn’t plan to pursue botany. Wallace thought she’d become a veterinarian, but realized it wasn’t for her during a summer job in a vet’s office.

Wallace went on to pursue her master’s at William & Mary and met a faculty member, Martha Case, whose excitement about orchids inspired her. Wallace later received her doctorate from Ohio State University.

In the world of biology, she is a “systematist,” meaning that she studies classification systems and evolutionary relationships. “I have always been interested in diversity, where it comes from and how it influences other aspects of nature,” she said.

Wallace has published articles in the International Journal of Plant Sciences, the American Journal of Botany, and Plant Systematics and Evolution.

Legumes are another research focus. Wallace is particularly fascinated by the partridge pea. “It is an incredibly interesting species, with lots of interactions with other organisms in the environment,” she said.

Ants, for instance, are attracted to the nectar made in small structures on the leaves of partridge peas. When they’re on the leaves, the ants often attack predatory insects. The leaves also attract other insects, which are “nectar thieves” and provide no benefit to the plant.

Wallace also serves as the faculty director and adviser to the Arthur & Phyllis Kaplan Orchid Conservatory on campus. And she’s director of science at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, hoping to increase partnerships between the institutions.

But research excites her the most. “There’s always a next question,” Wallace said.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.