In 1998 Susan Orlean completed a non-fiction book called “The Orchid Thief.” In 2002, the movie “Adaptation” was released, which was loosely (very loosely) based on the book. Before these events there were probably only a handful of people who knew anything about the ghost orchid. Now, of course, the publicity about the book and the film has made the ghost orchid well-known, at least by name.
The ghost orchid is a small and drab plant. If you walked past one growing on a tree when it was not blooming, you probably wouldn’t even realize it was there. It consists of a few scaly green or gray roots about eight inches across. This lack of structure is where it gets its name. When it is blooming, the roots fade into the background of the tree where it grows and the bloom looks like it’s hanging in mid-air.
There are no leaves and not much of a stem. It is able to perform photosynthesis through chloroplasts in the roots. The roots are covered by a multi-layered epidermis of thickened old cells called a velamen. When the roots are wet, the velamen fills with water. When dry, the velamen may act as a barrier against water loss.
The ghost orchid is an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another plant or relies on it for support without being parasitic. Epiphytes are often known as air plants because they are not anchored in the soil like an ordinary plant, and they are most often found in the tropics. This orchid seems to prefer pond apple or pop ash trees as hosts, but can sometimes be found on cypress, maple, or oak.
Its scientific name is dendrophylax lindenii: “dendro” from the Greek for tree and “phylax” from the Greek for guard, “lindenii” refers to Jean Jules Linden, Belgian explorer and botanist, who first recorded this orchid in Cuba in 1844.
This orchid is only known to exist in swampy areas of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, all located in southwest Florida. One particular specimen made headlines in July 2007 when two birdwatchers spotted it forty-five feet up in a bald cypress tree in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Botanists have estimated the age of this plant at thirty to thirty-five years.
Ghost orchids usually produce one to two blooms, although there can be more. The bloom is four to five inches across and is white or creamy green in color. The two lower petals of the bloom grow longer and curl slightly, looking a bit like a frog’s legs, giving rise to the plant’s other nickname, the frog orchid. The blooming period is generally from May to August and the plant may bloom more than once in a season.
The orchid is not self-pollinating. It is pollinated by the Giant Sphinx Moth, the only local insect with a proboscis long enough to reach down the throat of the bloom.
The ghost orchid is endangered. Like many other species found in the same area, it is threatened by the destruction of its habitat. Development, logging, change in drainage patterns, discharge of pollutants, invasive plant species – the causes of habitat damage are seemingly endless. In addition, orchid fanatics like the characters in Susan Orlean’s book are poachers, who remove these rare and fragile flowers from their home in the swamp.
If these habitats are not preserved and the poachers are not stopped, one day this orchid may really become a ghost, never to be seen in the swamp again.