Orchid found outside the romance department


A nice article on the discovery of a particularly great specimen of “Ghost Orchid” (Polyrrhiza lindenii) growing wild in Florida.  This is a most unique and unusual find: A journalist who can write sensibly about orchids without getting all hot and bothered.

“That any ghost orchid exists at all anywhere on the planet is improbable. It is the compulsive gambler of the plant kingdom, evolutionarily speaking. ”Every one has gone through a gauntlet of improbabilities,” Owen said.

A ghost orchid seed will likely die if it’s not infected by a particular strain of beneficial fungus. It will likely die if there’s not enough peat to nourish its giant cypress host. It will likely die if there’s not enough water in the slough below to saturate the air and mediate temperature swings. It will likely die if the tree canopy isn’t dense enough to shelter it from the wind and desiccating sun.

Even if the ghost orchid has covered all these very long bets, it can be pollinated only by a giant moth that flies only at night.”

More about Polyrrhiza lindenii

Pictures

Rare ghost orchids found near Naples

A mysterious plant found in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples was found to be the exceedingly rare ghost orchid.

nspangler@MiamiHerald.com

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Recently a woman took a walk in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and discovered a ghost orchid in full bloom.

This
was not an everyday or even an every-year occurance. There are not many
ghost orchids on the planet. Fewer than 1,000 are known to be growing
wild, and their locations are, by and large, kept secret by the
botanists who study them.

This is because ghost orchids have a
habit of walking off in the bags and baskets of orchid enthusiasts.
They can be sources of profit or private enjoyment.

Maryanne Biggar wanted neither. She was looking for owls.

In
the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 20 miles outside of Naples, she walked
down a boardwalk that winds through sawgrass marsh and some of the
state’s last remaining old-growth cypress forest. There she stopped to
scan the tree canopy.

Owl-spotting may well be a more rewarding
activity than ghost orchid-spotting, because ghost orchids are
virtually invisible except when they flower. They do this infrequently
and irregularly.

They are fiendishly difficult to cultivate, and
occur naturally only in Southwest Florida and Cuba. Even here they are
hard to find. While researching The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean spent months tramping the backcountry and didn’t see a single one.

On
this particular afternoon Biggar spotted a gray-brown barred owl with
its head tucked into its breast, napping. And something else — a spray
of brilliant white on a bald cypress tree 150 feet distant, perhaps 60
feet high on the trunk.

The spray turned out to be nine flowers,
each as big as a child’s palm, with narrow petals and a broad lip from
which descended two long tapered tendrils. The flowers seemed to float
in space, not unlike hovering ghosts.

Biggar, who runs a
gardening business in Homestead, knows her orchids better than most.
But her walking companions — husband John Ogden, a chief scientist at
the South Florida Water Management District in charge of Everglades
restoration, and their friends Jean McCollom and Mike Duever — are all
research biologists.

”I just knew they would all pooh-pooh it,” Biggar said.

It
was, after all, improbable. A series of frosts in the late 1980s and
early 1990s killed many of the Corkscrew orchids. Some survivors were
stolen by enthusiasts.

And Mike Owen, a botanist from the nearby
Fakahatchee Strand who may know more about ghost orchids than any other
man alive (he was featured in Orlean’s book, and the character based on
him meets an untimely death in the movie Adaptation), has said he’s never seen a ghost orchid taller than 23 feet tall, or with more than three flowers.

NATURE’S GAMBLER

That
any ghost orchid exists at all anywhere on the planet is improbable. It
is the compulsive gambler of the plant kingdom, evolutionarily
speaking. ”Every one has gone through a gantlet of improbabilities,”
Owen said.

A ghost orchid seed will likely die if it’s not
infected by a particular strain of beneficial fungus. It will likely
die if there’s not enough peat to nourish its giant cypress host. It
will likely die if there’s not enough water in the slough below to
saturate the air and mediate temperature swings. It will likely die if
the tree canopy isn’t dense enough to shelter it from the wind and
desiccating sun.

Even if the ghost orchid has covered all these
very long bets, it can be pollinated only by a giant moth that flies
only at night.

”The survival of the ghost orchid as a species is
completely dependent, as far as we know, on one species of moth, the
giant sphinx,” Owen said.

The giant sphinx moth feeds only on
two kinds of flowers, moon flowers and ghost orchids, Owen said. ‘It
has a six-inch wingspan and a six-inch proboscis. It’s sometimes dubbed
`the flying tongue’ . . . and it’s flying around the swamp at night
trying to detect these flowers.”

The flowers emit what Owen
unscientifically but poetically dubbed an ”odoriferous chum slick,”
stronger at night, to attract the giant sphinx moth to their nectar. It
sticks its tongue deep inside the flower to reach the nectar, picking
up a packet of pollen in process, and then it “sips up all that high
energy sugar that fuels its flight to the next flower, like jet fuel.”

Owen
has cataloged more than 300 ghost orchids at the Fakahatchee Strand;
around 600 are in Big Cypress and about 60 are in the Panther Preserve.
Nobody knows how many are growing in the smaller Corkscrew Swamp.

So
everything had to go exactly according to plan to cause this particular
ghost orchid to come into being 30 to 50 years ago (judging by the
extensive root system); and at some more recent point a
view-obstructing cypress branch had to fall; and Biggar had to visit
during a particular two-week span of an irregular blooming cycle, so a
woman on a walk on a rainy Saturday afternoon could see a flower. The
word for this is serendipity.

”If you spend a lot of
time in the woods, you kind of know what’s there, what to expect,”
Biggar said. “You’re looking for that little blip that’s out of the
ordinary.”

She stared at it for a while. Then — scared of
losing the flower for the forest — “I took my shoes off and pointed
them in a line with where I was looking.”

When she told McCollom, the scientist did not pooh-pooh. ”She was more than ready to believe,” Biggar said.

John Ogden looked at his wife’s face. ”She had this look — real excitement. Amazement,” he said. “And she had that I told you so look. She’s good.”

EXCITEMENT BUILDS

They
went back to McCollom’s and Duever’s house and celebrated with
cocktails. E-mails went out that afternoon to South Florida’s small but
hardy band of wild orchid enthusiasts. The Fort Myers News-Press
reported the story; The AP picked it up. The blogs followed.

Corkscrew
Swamp Sanctuary volunteers had trained a telescope on the flowers so
that visitors could see them in perfect detail. The number of visitors
– which drops during the sweltering summer months — has surged.

Sanctuary
manager Ed Carlson noted that the ghost orchid isn’t the only pretty
flower in the Swamp — ”Our hibiscus are vermilion and big as dinner
plates, our sunflowers are like gold,” he said — but even he seemed a
bit awed.

”It’s unprecedented,” Carlson said. “I don’t know a better word for it.”

More
maddened enthusiasts are on the way, rumored to be flying in from all
over. The flowers, up for now, will drop off over the next week.

Carlson
is welcoming everybody, but he took the precaution of moving infrared
cameras normally used to detect panthers into a protective perimeter
around the flower’s host tree.

2 thoughts on “Orchid found outside the romance department

  1. So fun to read that such a magnificent individual still thrives in South Florida. I ‘botanized’ in the Everglades, especially the Fakahatchee in the very early 1970′s, and these were hard to find then. NO leaves! Just roots containing chlorophyll, all radiating like spider legs from a central ‘dot’ of a stem – and that is where the flowers eminate.
    I never saw one near so large, simply singles or maybe as many as three flowers. I recall seeing flowers bobbing ever so slightly in the reduced breezes within the forest. Perhaps that’s why they are called Ghost Orchids – they are hard to find, they are white and bob oddly in the near-still air!
    Mike Bush

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  2. I never seen ghost orchid in person,”A ghost orchid seed will likely die if it’s not infected by a particular strain of beneficial fungus.” that’s why it is very good to know this.
    ford

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