September 2, 2014

Aristocrat of the Swamp

Elegant and demure, like victorian royalty using a commoner's alias, the clamshell orchid (Encyclia cochleata) blooms in the South Florida swamps in all but the hottest months. Some can be giants-the Henry VIIIs of clamshells, with spikes several feet long. But most are diminutive, just a few inches high. With their royal purple-and-gold collars framing the central column above five pale yellow sepals and petals, every breeze makes them seem to dance for unseen lovers. In fact, that's not far from the truth. Lacking the profound fragrance found in some of its wild orchid neighbors, the clamshell must attract insect pollinators by showy colors alone.

Where once there were nearly 100 species of wild orchids in South Florida, now only about 40 remain. As wetlands have been drained and vegetation has changed, many pollinators have disappeared, and destructive fires have grown ever more intense. Poaching by humans has had a devastating effect as well.

The Naples Orchid Society recently secured a grant to propagate and reinstate wild orchids. That's no easy task-every species depends on a specific fungus that attaches itself to the seed before it can germinate and thrive on its own, so scientists from the Smithsonian Institution will have to start by identifying each fungus. The aristocratic clamshell, like this one photographed just off the boardwalk at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's Briggs Nature Center, may be one of the first subjects in the project.

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