Let’s say you were walking a park trail in southern Florida one night. Suddenly you see something small and shadowy, clinging to the side of a tree. In the dim moonlight you can see it’s moving, or sort of fluttering. Are you seeing things? Your palms become sweaty as you realize you’ve just had your first ghostly encounter …
Well, maybe it’s not as dramatic as that, but it’s certainly a wonder to behold. Let me introduce you to a cryptid of the plant world, the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). Isn’t it gorgeous? (Photo, below left, caption: “The rare and often-poached Ghost Orchid is seen on a tree in Southwest Florida. UF/IFAS scientists are preserving this endangered consumer favorite. Credit: Courtesy, UF/IFAS.”)
D. lindenii lives in southwest Florida and they don’t have leaves. Their roots are embedded in the barks of trees that act as their hosts. Ghost orchid seeds won’t germinate until they are infected with a fungus called mycorrhizal fungus, so it can be a little tough to propagate them.
The author of the FLNativeOrchids.blogspot.com (see Reference section below) wrote that the area where they grow has seen a lot of serious tree damage over the years as storms have blown through. When the host tree dies, the orchids die.
Another complication is the fact that many are stolen for private collectors.
In Search Of
Professor of environmental horticulture at University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), Michael Kane, and doctoral student Hoang Nguyen began by searching southwest Florida for the precious seeds from these mysterious orchids. Once retrieved, they went back to the UF lab (in Gainesville) and tried to germinate them on a gelled medium under sterile conditions.
Kane and Nguyen enlisted the help of Biology professor and director of the Orchid Recovery Program at Illinois College, Larry Zettler hoping he could help them stimulate seed germination in their laboratory (since few of us have mycorrhizal fungus in our garden shed).
The collaboration was successful. Once the precious seeds germinated, Kane and Nguyen took them to the University’s greenhouse to wait for nature to take its course.
This process began in 2011 or so, and by 2014 the scientists were able to bring young Ghost Orchid plants back to the wild in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. They have monitored their progress and are pleased to report that 70-80 of the plants are thriving.
Kane said, “For orchid conservation, this is big. We are very excited.” They should be proud because they figured out the difficult puzzle of getting the seeds to germinate in captivity. Plus they had to endure undertaking their field work in difficult and dangerous habitat.
The following video by Florida Native Orchids is only a minute and a half long, but it shows the buggy, humid environment where these gorgeous plants are found. Note the bug noises.
At least there is one ghost that wouldn’t scare me to death! In fact, I would love to see some of these in the wild, wouldn’t you?
(Photo above by unknown.)