Monday, October 22, 2012

Ghost Hunters, Part IV

Originally posted on Audubon Guides on July 16th, 2012

My companions take the first step into the duckweed (Lemna valdiviana) covered muck. It stirs slightly and closes back in over the black water as they wade out into the slough. “Something moved in the water” one of them says. “Probably a snake”. I’ve seen Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) out here in the past, most notably one that bobbed to the surface after I stepped on it. They can inject venom with an underwater bite. I got lucky. We carry sticks for balance, to probe the water depth and to check for critters. We can’t dismiss the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) either. We believe there’s not enough food for an alligator out here yet. At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.

With each step we look a few feet above us. Ghost Orchids are leafless plants that have recognizable green-white cord like roots that radiate from a center point. They typically grow 6-10 feet above the water on Pop Ash and Pond Apples which provide excellent cover and trap the perfect amount of humidity for these epiphytes to thrive.
My one mistake of the day sets me on edge for the rest of it. As I wade into deeper water I sidestep an unseen fallen branch at my feet. I plunge from knee depth to hip deep in a second and suddenly my cameras, which I've raised over my head are not my biggest concern. I safely scramble onto a dry island and consider the importance of my walking stick.

I pick up the “trail” – a loose separation of duckweed that my companions have slogged through and continue hip deep at a cautious pace. They have found the first Ghost, a double with two blooms floating to either side of the host tree trunk.
The decision is made to check the edges of the slough as the plants in the middle seem to have bloomed early. I gratefully make my way out of the deep water as my shoes make one last sucking gasp as the mud releases them. Two year ago we found four Ghosts in another slough. Suddenly we were surrounded by them. Several were just blooming, some wilting and others in full resplendent glory. We found singles, doubles and one triple blossom plant – 22 all told.
Ghost Orchid twins © Pete Corradino
As I wrap my head around our good fortune I hear whispers. Babbling sounds from the center of the swamp. Am I imagining this? It sounds like people but we are out in the middle of nowhere. After a few moments, three strangers make their way across the slough and beam in on a flower their GPS has led them to. We introduced ourselves and left them to their work. That’s when we found this beautiful “triple” double, a double blossom with a single blossom growing from a neighboring plant. Beautiful.
After all of that, I’m afraid it’s time to head back the way we came in. 

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