Commentary

Does Florida’s most famous flower stand a ghost of a chance?

The ghost orchid faces dire threats and should be classified as endangered

February 3, 2022 7:00 am

A ghost orchid. Credit: Mick Fournier via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know Florida is full of ghost stories?

You wouldn’t think a place this sunny would have so many shades, but it does. You can find ghosts all over, from the haunted Pensacola Lighthouse up in the Panhandle to the infamous “Robert the Doll” in Key West. Why, on a good day in Tallahassee, you might even find the ghost of good sense (but don’t count on it).

I know we’re closer to Valentine’s Day than Halloween, but I mention our ghastly, ghostly presences because I need to tell you about our most famous ghost, one that’s been the star of a book and a movie.

I’m talking about the ghost orchid.

You’ve heard of the ghost orchid, right? It was featured in Susan Orlean’s 1998 bestseller “The Orchid Thief,” as well as the 2002 Nicolas Cage-Meryl Streep movie based on it, “Adaptation.” How often does Hollywood make a movie about a plant? The only other one I can think of is the voracious people-eater Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Most of the year a ghost orchid resembles nothing more than a leafless green lump stuck to the side of a tree. But in the summer, when it blooms, it looks like an albino frog caught in mid-leap, a delicate apparition dangling above the dull foliage. One orchid expert I know calls it “sexy.”

Juan Ponce de Leon dubbed Florida “The Land of Flowers.” It’s home to more than 100 native orchids. But only the ghost orchid shows up as a tourism promo on the side of U-Haul trucks.

In 1957, when Sarasota surgeon Carlyle Luer saw one (the flower, not the U-Haul ad), he was thunderstruck. He became an avid orchid grower, tracked down a ghost orchid in the wild to snap pictures of it, wrote the first guidebook to Florida’s native orchids, gave up his medical practice, and co-founded Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a scientific institution specializing in the study of orchids.

Luer wrote this of his blooming epiphany: “Should one be lucky enough to see a flower, all else will seem eclipsed.”

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Credit: Florida State Parks, DEP.

For years, I wanted to see a ghost orchid, but I hesitated over the fact that the best place to see one was “the Fak,” aka Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. That’s where both Orlean’s book and the movie portrayed them growing in what she described as “a green hell.”

To see a ghost, you’d need to sign up for a guided tour and wade through the swamp, meanwhile slapping mosquitoes and dodging gators. Even then, you might see nothing but the roots.

But then I found out that there’s a place where you can see one without even getting your feet wet. You hike a mile down the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, turn left and point your binoculars about 50 feet up the trunk of a 500-year-old cypress tree and BOOM! There it is, the biggest ghost in the state. In the summer it shows off multiple blooms.

So imagine my surprise last week to learn that the elusive ghost orchid is not classified as endangered. It’s not anywhere on the federal list of species granted legal protection. It has the same protected status as a rutabaga — in other words, none.

I found this out because a trio of environmental groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the ghost orchid to the endangered list — finally.

Only 1,500 or so remain in the wild in South Florida, a decrease of up to 50 percent, according to the petition from the National Parks Conservation Association, Institute for Regional Conservation, and Center for Biological Diversity. (There are some in Cuba, but they’re doing poorly too.)

I read that and did a double-take.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself (and maybe the leaping ghost of Dr. Luer). “They’re in state and national preserves. Unlike most Florida endangered species, their habitat is as protected from development. How can their population be in decline? And why aren’t they already on the endangered list?”

When it comes to plants, I have what gardeners call “a brown thumb.” However, I do know some plant experts, so I called them. I talked to the signers of the petition. I even sent an email to Orlean.

She replied that she liked the idea of adding ghosts to the endangered list but feared there might be unintended consequences — by attracting still more flower-stealers.

“I think it’s clearly warranted and seems like a good way to create some awareness,” she told me. “I just always worry that there are a few people who see endangered status as a motivation for getting their hands on something. Let’s hope the value of giving the ghost this protection outweighs the possibility that it makes them seem more alluring than ever.”

That’s right, the author of “The Orchid Thief” is concerned about causing more orchid thievery.

But it turns out that’s not the biggest problem the flowers face.

The orchid ‘collectors’

John Lindley, was an English botanist, gardener and orchidologist. Credit: Wikipedia.

If you’re a scientist, you know the ghost orchid as “Dendrophylax lindenii.” That name dates to 1846, when it was first described by a half-blind British botanist named John Lindley.

There are more than 200 plant species named for Lindley, many of which he named himself. He once told a fellow scientist, “I am a dandy in my herbarium.” But he didn’t name the ghost orchid after himself. He named it for the rugged adventurer who found it.

In the 1800s, Europe was caught in the grip of orchid-mania, an obsession even stronger than modern fads like playing Wordle. People simply could not get enough of the gorgeous flowers. Eager botanists dispatched swashbuckling explorers to seek new specimens for show and sell.

The king of these Victorian-era orchid-grabbers was a hook-handed man named Benedikt Roezel. He was notorious for single-handedly (ahem) stripping entire jungles of all their flowers.

One of Roezel’s rivals (try saying that three times real fast) was a Belgian botanist named Jean-Jules Linden. Like Roezel, he was an intrepid traveler unafraid to wade into swamps or climb trees to get what he was after. He became the first to discover the ghost orchid while exploring the wilds of Cuba.

What set Linden apart from those other “collectors” (note the use of ironic quote-marks) was that he took careful notes on the growing conditions for each new flower he found. That was right before he ripped it loose and packed it up to ship to the paying customers in Europe.

A lot of orchids tend to have some sort of wild story attached to them. Even the word “orchid” has a colorful background. It derives from the Greek word for “testicle,” because some of the orchid’s tubers resembled a man’s naughty bits. People used to believe them to be an aphrodisiac. (They were not.)

In the case of the ghost orchid, you can sum up the wild backstory in a single word: Poaching.

“Due to its beauty and rarity,” the petition states, “the ghost orchid has long been prized by collectors in Florida.”

The most famous poaching incident is the one that Orlean turned into a story for The New Yorker and then a book: On Dec. 21, 1993, a Seminole Tribe employee named John Laroche (played in the movie by Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar) waded into the Fak with three members of the tribe.

When they emerged, they were carrying pillow-cases and bags containing 136 plants, including ghost orchids.

Laroche was a savvy nurseryman with such an eye for playing the angles that he should have been a pool hustler. He believed that if the Seminoles — who are their own sovereign nation — removed plants from a state preserve, the authorities couldn’t arrest them.

He led the expedition and told his trio of accomplices what to pull down. Where the orchids were attached to trees, he told them to saw off the limb.

That was the flaw in his plan. (Oops, forgot to shout, “SPOILER ALERT!”)

They were caught and wound up being charged with removing plant life from the preserve — not the orchids, but the sawed-off branches. All four pleaded no contest.

The penalty for their poaching wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. It was more like a love-tap. If they’d been caught tampering with an endangered species, the sentence could have been far more severe.

The poaching did not begin with Laroche, nor did it end with him. Stig Dalstrom, who stars in a series of nature films called “The Wild Orchid Man,” visited the Fak in 2008 and 2009 to show his viewers a real, live ghost.

The ranger who showed the showy flower to him was Mike Owen, who in 2013 got married standing in 18-inch deep water next to the first ghost he’d shown his bride. He told Dalstrom the preserve had lost so many ghosts to poachers that “we’re probably going to have to stop the public ghost orchid walks.” People would take the tour, then sneak back and swipe the flowers, he said.

When I talked to Dalstrom this week, he said the poaching occurs because the ghost “is a legendary orchid.” The idea of possessing the biggest, boldest, best-known orchid appeals to some people, he explained. But to him it makes no sense because their growing conditions are so specific to the swamp they’re in that they usually wilt when removed.

“People still try to get them,” he told me, “but they can’t keep them alive.”

Sunset over the preserve, Big Cypress National Preserve, 2015.
Publisher: U.S. National Park Service.

The poaching isn’t confined to the Fak. In the summer of 2020, a staff member at nearby Big Cypress National Preserve discovered 15 to 20 ghost orchids had been stolen, according to Superintendent Tom Forsyth and botanist Courtney Angelo.

The staffer “could see the scars on the trees where someone chopped into the trunk of the tree just above and just below the orchids with a machete (or something similar) and removed the orchid while they remained attached to the tree bark,” Forsyth told me via email.

They suspect these modern Benedikt Roezels located the orchids by checking the metadata on nature photographers’ pictures, a disquieting possibility.

But according to the petition, poaching isn’t the biggest threat to the future of the ghost orchid. Instead, it’s what’s missing from the Big Cypress, the Fak, and Corkscrew Swamp right now, something that’s much more basic and troubling: Water.

How dry they are

In April 2020, a wildfire swept through hundreds of acres of the Big Cypress. It burned to within 6 feet of one known ghost orchid and within 20 feet of a bunch more.

Normally, wildfires are good for the Florida landscape, but not this one. The National Park Service report on it noted, “The Preserve is currently way too dry to let fires burn. Wildfires at this time will burn too hot, too fast, and for too long.”

Nobody had ever thought to petition for the ghost orchid to be classified as endangered before because they assumed it was already protected by virtue of growing on preserves, said George Gann, president of the Institute for Regional Conservation. He and the other petitioners were spurred to take action by the first population survey in years, which showed the dramatic decline.

Turns out the preserves have been under assault for years. Decades ago, logging crews wiped out most of the cypress trees that give Big Cypress its name. Even worse damage has been done by workers who dug drainage canals outside the preserves to dry out the soil so farmers could plant vegetables or developers could build homes and stores. Then along came the recent off-road vehicle trails in Big Cypress that dug deep channels through the muck.

Now all that harm is being exacerbated by another human intrusion: climate change. By altering global temperatures, we’ve upset the normal rainfall cycle, ruining the high-humidity habitat for the ghost orchids.

For the past 15 years, the region around the Big Cypress has experienced one of its driest periods in nearly a century, said Melissa Abdo of the National Parks and Conservation Association. That drought makes conditions ripe for those out-of-control wildfires, too.

Our human nature is to focus on the dramatic Dora-versus-Swiper story of rangers battling poachers. But the bigger threat is more subtle, more gradual, and more permanent.

Poached flowers may grow back. Altering where they grow ends that possibility forever. Such a loss implicates all of us when we drive our cars, use fossil-fueled electric power, or vote for politicians who refuse to do any “left-wing stuff” to combat climate change.

Think of us as Audrey II, mindlessly gobbling up everything in sight. If we don’t change our ways, these lovely orchids just don’t stand a ghost of a chance.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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