Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Ghost Orchid of the Everglades

Growing Up in Everglades City

Photo by Savannah Oglesby

I gained my passion for both nature and plants from my parents. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a botanist, so my mother loves to garden and helps me appreciate every flower or plant we come across. The Everglades is home to a rare and endangered orchid that blooms every summer season. The ghost orchid, also known as Dendrophylax lindenii, are found primarily in the marshy, humid areas of Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba. They require speckled shade, mild temperatures and a certain type of fungus, mycorrhizal, to exist.

It’s hard to locate where exactly ghost orchid plants grow, as their secret spots are meant to protect them from poachers that try to detach them from their natural environment. Wild orchids in the United States, such as the ghost orchid, in general are threatened by pesticides, climate change and loss of pollinators. However, according to experts at University of Florida Extension, there are only 2,000 ghost orchid plants that grow wild in the state of Florida, but recent statistics show that there might be more.

The ghost orchid is usually found with its green roots tangled tightly around the trunk of various tree species, such as pond apple, maple and cypress. Its appearance is distinguishable as its roots are a greyish-green colored marked by thin white strips. The orchid usually only produces one flower that is white in color and its petals are thin and stretch in multiple directions. Its labellum creates the illusion as if the flower has legs, giving the plant the nickname “white frog orchid,” because of the blooms frog-like shape. The plant is also leafless, unlike other orchids, but it has photosynthetic roots that when sunlight is present it produces sugars. The roots also engage in a reciprocal relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus that helps to gather nutrients and in exchange is given extra sugars. The ghost orchid would not be able to flourish without the help of this fungus, because it helps the seeds germinate after it is infected.

In the peak of mosquito season, usually the months of June and July, the ghost orchid blooms. The plant is pollinated at night by the sphinx moth, whose proboscis or long tongue allows the insect to obtain the nectar from the flower that cannot be reached easily by other insects. The sphinx moth will ideally travel to more than just one ghost orchid plant, therefore transporting pollen from one plant to another. This process of pollination by the sphinx moth does not necessarily mean the endangered plant species will bloom, as it does not flower consistently.

I still recall the first time I ever saw a ghost orchid back in July 2014. I was overly eager to be able to view something so unique and rare in the orchid plant family. My parents and I traveled to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where a family friend told us the ghost orchids were blooming. We walked down the boardwalk, staying quiet so we didn’t disturb the wildlife around us, and finally stopped at the tree where multiple had bloomed. One of the volunteers at the sanctuary had a long telescope set up on the railing of the boardwalk where you could look into and see the ghost orchid closer, since it was wrapped tightly around a soaring cypress tree in the swamp. It was the first time my parents saw a ghost orchid in person, and they were just as in awe as I was. As I looked through the telescope it was as if the blooms were right in front of me, close enough to touch. Stems were tangled among one another, as if the petals on the bloom were dancing about, and the roots looked bound so tight that they draped down the tree like a blanket. It was beautiful and breathtaking; I had never seen anything like it. The ghost orchid has become a symbol of the Everglades and if you’ve never seen one in person, I highly recommend during the months they bloom that you venture into the swamp to find one.

University of Florida student Savannah Oglesby has lived in Everglades City her entire life. A lover of nature; some of her favorite things are sunsets, night lightning and mountains. She enjoys adventures and spending time with family, friends and two orange tabby cats. She also enjoys travelling, taking photos of nature, learning about extreme weather and seeing the world in different perspectives. Savannah’s love for Everglades City, and its history, is endless.

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