Restoring the ghost orchid to Florida Everglades

A ghost orchid blooming in Fakahatchee in June. Scientists growing them in labs hope to reintroduce them to the wetlands.
A ghost orchid blooming in Fakahatchee in June. Scientists growing them in labs hope to reintroduce them to the wetlands.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

IMMOKALEE (Florida) • Armed with a staple gun and dozens of burlap squares entwined with ratty green roots, Professor Mike Kane wades hip-deep into a swamp to restore what generations of thieves have stolen - the ghost orchid.

Ghost orchids (Dendrophylax lindenii) were once abundant in the Florida Everglades, but experts say fewer than 2,000 are left in the state, where it is considered an endangered plant. Cuba has some too, but just how many is unknown.

Poaching, urbanisation and pesticide pollution - which affects insect pollinators - are among the top threats, says Prof Kane, who specialises in environmental horticulture at the University of Florida.

He is leading the first project of its kind to repopulate the swamps with the orchids. He and his graduate students grow the plants from genetically diverse seeds at their lab.

After the orchids have grown for a few years, they are taken to a secluded location deep inside the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, to a tranquil spot known as McBride's Pond. "The public cannot come in and poach, and they cannot disrupt our experiments," said Mr Jameson Coopman, a graduate student at the lab.

The two men take turns stapling the burlap, not the roots, onto tree trunks. The burlap will decompose, but the spider-like roots will hug the tree bark and, hopefully, make a new home there. "We give it a quick mist when we are done," said Mr Coopman. "We don't help the plant any further. It does the rest."

Elsewhere in the Everglades, biologist Mike Owen keeps close tabs on 120 of the 380 ghost orchids that have been observed in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. He calls them the "underdogs" of the flower world.

"The ghost orchid just gets no respect," he said. In the past 15 years, he noticed, nine have been stolen. Another two dozen or so died of apparently natural causes, so he sees trouble ahead for the fragile flower.

"If you take a ghost orchid out of its native habitat, it will die," he said.

The sultry blossom acquired pop culture fame with the book The Orchid Thief, and its movie version Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep.

Orchid enthusiasts love the leafless flower's exotic looks, its pure white hue and the way it dances in the wind. The bloom emerges just once a year, usually for a week or so in June or July.

"The reason they are almost extinct is that, years ago, people took them out of the forest, took them down from the trees and sent them around to other parts of the country to grow as houseplants," said Mr Carl Lewis, director of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Restoring the ghost orchid to Florida Everglades'. Print Edition | Subscribe