Finding the Ghost Orchid in the Florida Everglades

Novelist Susan Orlean made the Ghost Orchid a household name in her 2000 best-selling book, The Orchid Thief, now in its 13th edition. The story became the subject of a highly acclaimed film, Adaptation, in 2002, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. The orchid world has been abuzz ever since.

The Ghost Orchid is technically called Dendrophylax lindenii – an obscure member of the Vanda family. The plant does not have any leaves – just roots – which blend in with the tree. The white flowers seem to ‘float’ like a ghost and are pollinated in nature by the Giant Sphinx moth. The Ghost Orchid is an endangered species and can be found in swampy forests in South Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean.

Fellow orchid grower, Paul Philhour, from The Orchid Station in Barboursville, VA gave a firsthand account of finding this rare and exotic orchid: “I grew up in South Florida and, in the early 1960’s, Martin Motes (now legendary Vanda grower from Homestead) and I would explore the Florida Everglades, entering though the Tamiami trail (the road between Miami and Tampa). We would go in the dry season in shorts and sandals. It was spring and there weren’t any mosquitoes. The Ghost Orchids were growing in large cypress hammocks (islands of trees) which were partially submerged in water. The plants could only be found in bloom because the roots blended in perfectly with the cypress bark. We would wade into the swamp and hope there weren’t any Alligators or Water Moccasins.

The best way to collect the plants (illegal today) was to peel off the cypress bark that the plants were attached to. When we got home, we would tie the bark along with the plant onto a piece of driftwood. We kept the plants in heavy shade under a Mango tree. We were successful in getting the plants to re-bloom for only a few years. It was not possible to replicate the high humidity of the cypress swamp.”

The Ghost Orchid is quite rare in the wild and extremely difficult to propagate artificially. This haunting swamp creature is best viewed in literature and the cinema.

Sunday, March 1, 2015 - 22:15