If you are afraid of ghosts, you’re probably better off staying out of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in southwest Florida. Hiding among the pond apples and cypresses is a phantom of a plant—a mangled mass of roots that stays invisible for most of the year before bursting forth in the summer months with a snow-white flower unlike any other in the plant kingdom.
The plant, known to botanists as Dendrophylax lindenii, is a member of the orchid family, one of the largest families of flowering plants. A striking feature of the plant is its absence of noticeable leaves or stems: All of its photosynthesis occurs in its green roots. When the exceptionally showy flowers do appear, they are seemingly borne out of nowhere, like a ghost. This lends the plant its familiar name: the ghost orchid.
A gem tucked away in the farthest southern reaches of the state, it is as inaccessible as a plant can be in Florida, where land is grabbed by developers from shore to shore. But despite its legendary status and firm hold in Florida lore and culture—the plant was one of the subjects of a 2002 Spike Jonze comedy—the ghost orchid is in danger, a victim of its own popularity and human development adjacent to its habitats.
Estimates place the number of remaining ghost orchids in the wild at around 2,000, making it endangered. And the ghost orchid isn’t the only native orchid in trouble. 76 species of orchids native to Florida—over half of the 118 species that can be found in the state—are state-listed as endangered, threatened or commercially exploitable.
Orchids are remarkably diverse and live in virtually every habitat across Florida. As land development further encroaches on their natural habitat, the loss of habitat and pollinators, changes in water cycling and the introduction of invasive species all put pressure on the orchid’s ability to survive. If the plants are to avoid extinction, humans need to intervene.
Unraveling the secrets of the ghost orchid is a fascinating and rewarding experience for scientists who seek to conserve native orchids like Michael Kane, a professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Horticulture.
“This plant has many secrets,” Kane said. “It generates more questions. I think it’s going to be a model system for orchid conservation.”
As Kane and his team have learned, successfully restoring ghost orchid populations and maintaining genetic diversity hinges on being able to germinate seeds collected in the wild, rather than grow orchids from genetically identical clonal lines. However, orchid seeds are notoriously meager. They cannot germinate effectively without outside help, which comes in the form of mycorrhizal symbionts—threads of fungi living naturally on bark and in the soil that associate with plant roots to trade resources.
In conjunction with researchers at Illinois College and the Chicago Botanical Garden, Kane and other researchers quantified and examined the effects of seed germination on three different species of fungus isolated from adult ghost orchid roots.
“The fungus infiltrates the seed,” Kane said, “The embryo provides a source of water. They exchange nutrients and then it germinates.”
Once the seedlings are growing, the next challenge is adhering the delicate plants—which consist of just photosynthetic roots—to the side of trees without covering those food-producing regions. After testing several types of material, Kane and his colleagues settled on burlap, which gives a breathable interface for the roots to grow through while maintaining a moist, mossy substrate. Several of the Kane Lab’s ghost orchids can be found growing this way in the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Rainforest.
Although they represent only one of the many groups of organisms at risk in Florida, the charismatic orchids are the poster child for the threat of human-induced habitat changes and poaching.
Kane has also reintroduced wild orchids in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Preserve east of Naples, which has been a success. In June 2015, they put out 80 orchids, 90 percent of which survived after three months. Since the first study, they’ve put out 250 more orchids.
While over 300 newcomers to the cypress swamps of southwest Florida is nothing to shake a stick at, on the other side of Florida, researchers are thinking much larger—and more cosmopolitan.
Spearheaded by the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, the massive Million Orchid Project seeks to engage students from over 120 public schools in Miami to flood the heart of the city with the six species of orchids that once thrived there before being all but extirpated.
Jason Downing, an orchid biologist, said anecdotal evidence shows that before habitat loss and extreme poaching, trees in the Miami-Dade area were inundated with orchids.
“After the construction of Henry Flagler’s railroad, orchids were some of the first natural resources removed from Miami,” Downing said.
Today, many of the orchids with a historical presence in Miami are relegated to the outskirts of the urban area; only around five species of orchid can be found within the city’s sprawl.
To Downing, the Million Orchid Project has twofold importance. Not only does the project follow in Fairchild’s legacy of integrating public education and scientific research into civic science projects, it also prioritizes reintroduction in the fragmented habitats of Miami’s urban matrix.
In all, Downing said, 1 million individual plants from six orchid species will be reintroduced as a part of the project. Downing said he hopes that flooding the area with orchids will indirectly decrease poaching in natural areas and give Florida’s orchids a chance to flourish.
Although they represent only one of the many groups of organisms at risk in Florida, the charismatic orchids are the poster child for the threat of human-induced habitat changes and poaching. The efforts by scientists like Kane and Downing show that an integrative understanding of the plant’s biological and historical significance can, along with some community help, be a model for ensuring that, contrary to their name, these orchids don’t become ghosts. •