November 27, 2014

Rare Beauties

Orchids can inspire a near-erotic lust in those who admire them. In her bestselling The Orchid Thief (soon to be released as a movie starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage), Susan Orleans chronicled how some orchid lovers go to any lengths to possess certain plants, including stealing rare species from their native swamps. Such poaching, along with destruction of swamp habitat, alteration of water levels and a reduction in the number of insects that pollinate them, has sharply reduced the number of Florida's once plentiful wild orchids.

The hope of glimpsing the near-mythical ghost orchid (Polyradicion lindenii), central character in Orlean's story, lures aficionados from thousands of miles away to trudge through Southwest Florida's deepest sloughs and endure clouds of mosquitoes. Seeing one in full bloom for the first time is sublime. Leafless, it seems suspended in the ether, an elaborate, eerily white, nearly translucent bow with a long, trailing spur, all jutting from a complex star of pale green roots clinging to a tree. Besides Cuba, which harbors a few specimens of this gorgeous flower, the ghost orchid is ours alone, appearing only in the Fakahatchee and Big Cypress basin. While the plants are plentiful, they bloom only sporadically.

Far from stemming the lust for these flowers, the Native Orchid Restoration Project (NORP) hopes to feed that passion. Wilderness surrounding Naples supports-or once supported-the highest concentration of native orchids in the United States-more than 40 species. But the relentless push of humans into formerly pristine swamp has reduced the number of orchids drastically. The orchid project was born two years ago when a small group from the Naples Orchid Society and biologists at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge officially combined forces. Since then, the group has become an official not-for-profit organization, created a master plan for orchid restoration and filed the paperwork to collect orchid seedpods from public lands.

Because we won't save what we neither see nor understand, Caribbean Gardens, the Zoo in Naples, has stepped in to display endangered orchids to help educate the public. Wild orchids salvaged in front of bulldozers and other orphan orchids are being relocated to the Zoo. Seeds from those plants can be collected, propagated and eventually sold to the public. Although seeds collected from federal lands will be propagated in a greenhouse to be built on the panther refuge, the resultant plants cannot be sold but must be transplanted to public lands.

Larry Richardson, wildlife biologist for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, says he noticed a decade ago how rare the once plentiful native orchids were becoming. His research in the swamps near Naples helped convince the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C., to award the refuge a $65,000 cost-sharing conservation grant to re-establish orchids on refuge lands. Recipients must match foundation money with cash or in-kind contributions of goods and services. "Orchids are very particular plants," notes Richardson. After collecting seedpods from pollinated wild plants, collectors place the pods in sterile flasks and later plant them in pots in a greenhouse. After several years in the greenhouse, the plants will be established-usually tied to branches, as most orchids in the first stages of restoration will be epiphytic rather than terrestrial-in suitable swamp environments.

Ultimately, the fate of Southwest Florida's wild orchids will hinge on the success of the mammoth Everglades Restoration Project. Most South Florida orchids are tropical or sub-tropical and cannot tolerate a freeze. Swamp water insulates, however, absorbing heat from the sun during the day and slowly releasing warmth at night, protecting plants above. During drought or on lands drained by canals, orchids are unprotected. The inevitable freeze will kill.

Understanding the science of how orchids grow is essential, and the orchid project has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution's Environmental Research Center in Washington, D.C., which is working to determine which mycorrhizae are needed to bond each epiphytic orchid species to trees. These fungi, probably unique to each species, are essential because they create a food source for the new plant.

NORP's president, Lee Hoffman emphasizes the need to reach landowners who will allow them to acquire plants from their property for propagation. "The public lands permits take time, but a simple signature is all that's required from a private person who wants to help orchid restoration immediately," says Hoffman. He makes a special plea to developers: "Call us before bulldozing. We can come in and rescue plants and place them in Caribbean Gardens for the public to see."

The group is documenting where orchids used to be found and in what quantities. Volunteers are interviewing experts on native orchids, and asking residents with information or expertise to come forward.

"We're living at an important time for native orchids and all wildlife in this area," Hoffman says. " We want to make sure we can look our grandchildren in the eye and say we did everything we could."