July 6, 2008

Ghost Orchid in Bloom

They're back! Blooms from the ghost orchid discovered last year at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary flowered mid-summer like clockwork.

ghost orchid by rj wiley In 1844, Belgian plant collector Jean Jules Linden discovered Polyrrhiza lindenii (aka Dendrophylax lindenii) on the island of Cuba. The orchid grows only in Cuba, the Bahamas and South Florida. The plant, which receives nutrients from the air, is nearly impossible to spot unless it's blooming; otherwise it appears as nothing more than a humble tangle of roots attached to a tree. In contrast, the flower dangles delicately, suspended in the air, like a ghostly dancer with widespread arms.

The ghost orchid was the star of Adaptation (2002), a wildly quirky film starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. The latter plays John Laroche, a real-life South Florida jack of all trades who got caught stealing a
Polyrrhiza lindenii specimen from the Fakahatchee Strand. Laroche became famous when Susan Orlean published an article in The New Yorker about his Everglades exploits. I wrote a review about Adaptation last year at Miami Beach 411, which made think a great deal about his orchid obsession:
Because they are endangered and so difficult to cultivate, the real-life Laroche was tempted to propagate them [the ghost orchids] himself, putting an end to the black market and in his own twisted altruistic way of thinking—the need for poaching wild specimens.

John Laroche's story reflects a passionate yet sordid twist on the human coveting of these rare plants. Indeed, I am just as fascinated by the technical aspects of pollination today as I was last year when I wrote about Polyrrhiza lindenii:
Our local celebrity ghost orchid has only one pollinator, the giant sphinx moth, whose proboscis is long enough to fit just right, not one millimeter less or more—just right. The slim nectar spur on the bottom is shaped like the long tongue-like appendage of the moth, which can measure up to six inches long. As the moth sucks nectar, sticky grains of pollen attach to its head. For pollination to occur, the moth must visit another orchid where, hopefully, the same pollen will detach onto the plant. The process is a perfect example of adaptation and the unique relationship between the flower and its pollinator.
As far as I know, no one has ever successfully propagated the ghost orchid in a laboratory. Still, I think that might be easier than finding love, don't you? Plants have so much to teach us ...

Corkscrew's website reports:
"The Ghost Orchid's first 2008 bloom opened June 23, left. By July 1, five blooms were open with three more buds maturing."

Before you rush out west to catch sight of the flowers, keep in mind that the blooms grow far away from the boardwalk. Even the most intrepid photographers need ladders and powerful zoom lenses to capture images of the orchid. But there are many more South Florida natural wonders at this sanctuary, so it's worth a visit.

Read more about the ghost orchid at Corkscrew's website.

Photo courtesy of R.J. Wiley.


Prem Subrahmanyam said...

I have taken photos of this orchid in bloom at Corkscrew and other places in south Florida. You can view these here:


Maria de los Angeles said...

Prem, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your site. I look forward to exploring it!