Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Ghost Orchid: The Epiphyte of Your Life

Chances are you will never see a Ghost Orchid in the wild. Rare in nature and often growing in difficult to access places, this seemingly ethereal and ephemeral epiphyte can be found in the Everglades and most specifically in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park where I take my tours. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants without being parasitic. They essentially use a host tree for support as the swampy soils and thick canopy make life on the forest floor tough.

The 20,000 acre park has the highest diversity of orchids in North America, but the Ghost Orchid is one of the most rare and in fact we rarely see orchids at all. Sadly, orchid thieves poach the plants from their host tree and sell them on the black market. You may have heard of the 1994 book the Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean based on the true story of a flower poacher in the Fakahatchee. Hollywood made an adaptation loosely based on the book with Nicholas Cage. It was called Adaptation.

Anyway. The orchids are few and far between, but 3 weeks ago, birders at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, (just north of the Fakahatchee), were searching for Owls when they noticed a 6-blossomed flower growing 60 feet up on the trunk of Bald Cypress! This was a first in that Ghost Orchids had not been found in this sizable sanctuary and no Ghost Orchid had ever been found above 26 feet from the forest floor or on a cypress! That deserves one more!! They've had experts definitively say this is a Ghost Orchid, but who knows, maybe it's a whole new species not known to us.

I've not bothered to be concerned about ever seeing a Ghost Orchid. I just assumed I would never see one, but I headed out to Corkscrew and had the luck to see the most rare flower in North America.

The Sanctuary had spotting scopes to see the flowers which were blooming 100 feet from the boardwalk. My photos will pale in comparison to anyone with a telephoto, but I got a picture nonetheless through the scope.

The flowers bloom from June to August, with 1-10 flowers arising from nothing but roots attached to the cypress. Each flower blooms one after the other and they only last three weeks, so I arrived just in time. Once they go to seed, they drop bell pepper-sized seeds into the wind in the hope that one may land in an appropriate spot and begin to grow. It doesn't happen often.

They're called Ghost Orchid because they look like little dancing ghosts or jumping frogs which is why they have the less then stellar and less used name of Frog Orchid.

The flowers are so prized by orchid thieves, that the sanctuary has had to set up motion-sensing cameras and trip wires around the perimeter of the tree to protect it. There are already rumors of poachers plotting to steal them. Imagine getting caught and going to jail? What are you in for? "Stealing flowers".

I'll stick to photographs. This is one of those once in a lifetime experiences. Couldn't be more elated.


  1. Fantastic, Pete! I'd never heard of these rare flowers and didn't know what I was missing. Your scope photo is fine -- I can see the dancing ghosts and imagine you dancing around on the boardwalk over this once in a lifetime spot.

  2. Hola Pedrito de la Jungla.Thanks for showing about the ghost orquid, it was interesting. Im glad u had the chance to see that.

  3. AWESOME! finally nature AND pictures. Very cool, even the grouchy husband enjoyed it!

  4. Very cool!! Your photos confirm that my dad does NOT have a ghost orchid at his house :)