Southwest Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park claims the title of orchid and bromeliad capital of the United States, but the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve also has its fair share of those beautiful and sensitive plants. But unless you have a trained eye, you are likely to walk right by without noticing them.
In muggy, buggy June and July, you can view up close in the Big Cypress one of the most endangered flowers in the world — the starkly beautiful white ghost orchid — so named because it really is shaped like Casper in the cartoon. That’s what Howard Lubel, Rose Flynn and I found on a short swamp hike recently. But we almost missed it.
Lubel and Flynn, who split their time between Miami Beach and Everglades City and serve as volunteers for both the Big Cypress and Fakahatchee preserves, had pre-scouted this particular muddy slough for orchids before inviting me along for a walk. The couple requested I keep the exact location secret because of concerns about potential poaching. Their concerns are well-founded. The ghost orchid, which starred in Susan Orlean’s nonfiction best-seller The Orchid Thief and the subsequent movie treatment, Adaptation, is much sought-after by unscrupulous collectors who have tried without success to cultivate it outside its native wilds.
Lubel and Flynn say they are not really “orchid people” — who have a reputation for being more than slightly eccentric. For the couple, spotting orchids is just a good excuse to wade into the swamp, shoot photos and be away from people.
“I just like being out there, the light, the sloughs and the water,” Flynn said. “I’ve just started to be able to spot plants — like really spot them.”
Armed with walking sticks, water, Therma-Cell and liquid insect repellent, we stepped off the brightly hot dirt road into the damp shade of the woods — and almost immediately found a clamshell orchid perched on the bow of a pop ash. A locally abundant but rare species, this orchid gets its name from the shape of its leaves. As we kept going deeper into the slough, we saw more and larger clamshells.
Skirting a shallow pond teeming with jumping, loudly croaking frogs, Lubel came to another pop ash that sported a large clamshell and two more native orchids — the rigid and the yellow helmet — plus numerous bromeliads, which are members of the pineapple family. Plants like this that grow on trees are epiphytes, which draw life from their host without harming it. To distinguish the orchids from other epiphytes, Lubel advises looking for a root ball anchoring leaves with parallel veins. Flowers have three petals, one of which is shaped like a lip to serve as a landing platform for insects and birds that pollinate them.
“Just the abundance and diversity is just awesome,” Lubel said. “You hear frogs croaking. If you spend a day in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, what do you hear but people honking horns? Looking around here, it’s so green, where every place we live is concrete.”
We almost literally bumped into the ghost orchid. Flynn was closely examining a thin, green ribbon-like root encircling the trunk of a pop ash, and I was looking where she was pointing. For some reason, I happened to glance lower on the tree — and there sprung the beautiful white bloom of our target seemingly staring at us. We took turns photographing it.
Biologists say the ghost orchid — of which there are maybe 1,000 in Southwest Florida — is an indicator species of the overall health of an ecosystem like the Big Cypress or the Fakahatchee — sort of a canary in the coal mine warning of environmental hazards. It grows in a specialized habitat with a particular combination of high humidity, mild temperatures, dappled shade, and a certain type of fungus, and it is pollinated at night only by a large, weird-looking insect called the sphinx moth. Because it doesn’t flower reliably, sightings of its blooms cause great excitement among orchid enthusiasts. When “Casper” showed himself for the first time near the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary boardwalk near Naples in 2007, botanists and media from around the world trooped in to admire him.
After giving Casper his due, Flynn, Lubel and I continued on, finding several more ghost orchid roots, but none with blooms. The couple also spotted a beautiful, blooming butterfly orchid, its white petals flecked with violet, along with several dingy-flowered starred orchids and one night-scented orchid.
As a bonus, Flynn found and photographed three deer watching us as we returned to our car — a productive hike indeed.