Mycorrhizal fungi have substantial potential to influence plant distribution, especially in specialized orchids and mycoheterotrophic plants. However, little is known about environmental factors that influence the distribution of mycorrhizal fungi. Previous studies using seed packets have been unable to distinguish whether germination patterns resulted from the distribution of appropriate edaphic conditions or the distribution of host fungi, as these cannot be separated using seed packets alone. We used a combination of organic amendments, seed packets and molecular assessment of soil fungi required by three terrestrial orchid species to separate direct and indirect effects of fungi and environmental conditions on both seed germination and subsequent protocorm development. We found that locations with abundant mycorrhizal fungi were most likely to support seed germination and greater growth for all three orchids. Organic amendments affected germination primarily by affecting the abundance of appropriate mycorrhizal fungi. However, fungi associated with the three orchid species were affected differently by the organic amendments and by forest successional stage. The results of this study help contextualize the importance of fungal distribution and abundance to the population dynamics of plants with specific mycorrhizal requirements. Such phenomena may also be important for plants with more general mycorrhizal associations.
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