More than a century ago, blankets of fragrant orchids draped oak and mahogany trees throughout South Florida’s tropical paradise.
But as people pinched the natural habitat through decades of development, they ripped many species of native orchids out of the hammock and shipped them north to sell as cheap potted plants.
So now the orchid — muse to Charles Darwin, renowned for its beauty, sniffed for its fragrance, and collected and grown by the most passionate of green thumbs — is poised to make a comeback. (Darwin, by the way, studied the relationship between insects and orchids while exploring his theory of evolution, and predicted a moth species based on observing a special type of orchid.)
The comeback will begin next month when the city of Coral Gables and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, partners for the Million Orchid Project, aim to restore the orchid’s prominence in public spaces throughout Miami-Dade County.
For the past year, the garden has been growing seedlings of thousands of orchids. In April, Volunteers will begin to place the first of 50,000 orchids in trees that line Coral Gables streets. The city has budgeted $30,000 a year for the next five years to eventually have 250,000 native orchids living in the canopy.
Dr. Carl Lewis, Fairchild’s director, said it’s the first of what he hopes are several partnerships with other cities in Miami-Dade to support the initiative.
For him, the objective is simple.
“In a nutshell, we’re just putting the orchids back,” he said.
Fairchild will reintroduce three native species in the Gables — Florida Butterfly, Cowhorn and Cockleshell orchids. Workers will put the plants out of arm’s reach to stymie orchid-picking.
In order to give the orchids their best chance to thrive, organizers have taken their cues from the other side of the world. Since the mid-1990s, scientists at the Singapore Botanic Gardens have worked on reintroducing native orchids to Singapore’s parks and tree-lined streets.
Dr. Yam Ting Wing, principal researcher at the Gardens, wrote in an email Friday that they have seen many positive results blooming in the years since the project started, with some notable plants flowering as recently as last year.
“One of the 18 species reintroduced is the Tiger Orchid ( Grammatophyllum speciosum), the largest orchid species in the world,” he wrote. “More than 10 years after they were planted through the programme, several Tiger Orchid plants flowered for the first time in March 2013.”
Lewis traveled to Singapore to see it for himself before work began at Fairchild in December 2012, when the garden opened a new lab specifically for producing large quantities of plants. After seeing the diverse array of orchids thriving throughout Singapore, he knew such a project would be worth the effort back home.
“It was amazing to see how successful the orchids have been,” he said.
Fairchild’s work has been led by a group of dedicated volunteers and experts, including Martin Motes, Ph.D., who is a research fellow at the garden and is proprietor of Motes Orchids in Redland. Motes, author of Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month, began growing orchids as a child and has grown them for more than 50 years. He trained the 30 volunteers who have spent the last year working with the plants.
“Orchids are not rare because they are hard to grow,” he said. “They are rare because they take time to grow.”
Motes said the volunteers show extraordinary enthusiasm and skill in their work, and many find the work meditative and relaxing.
The work to grow such a large number of orchids under perfect conditions in a lab has been a slow, meticulous labor of love for the volunteers, many of whom are retired professionals from fields like law and science.
First, volunteers place tiny, dust-like seedlings in a sterilized glass bottle with a black liquid mixture that has all the energy the seeds need to germinate. After six to eight months, they’re ready for a stint in the greenhouse. Taking the plants out has to be slow and careful, like building a model ship in a bottle.
In the greenhouse, they grow into the five-inch plants that will soon have new homes on the branches and trunks of the oaks and mahoganies lining Coral Gables streets.
Inside the lab at Fairchild, thousands of glass bottles with germinating orchid seeds lie on metal racks under white, red and blue lights. The different lights are part of the experiment — volunteers are researching the effects of each color on the plants. Students at TERRA Environmental Research Institute, a magnet public high school in West Kendall, are studying their own batch of seedlings, too.
“This is a big experiment,” Lewis said, smiling.
Motes said disease shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the “tough” plants as they grow, but unexpected critters could.
“Insects could be an unforeseen problem,” he said. “We’re not sure how many new insects have been introduced to the population that would affect the orchids.”
Either way, he said the strategy is to plant so many orchids that any threat, including people, would do little harm. The hope is that like in Singapore, the orchids will take off and naturally reproduce on their own during the next decade.
When Coral Gables Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. caught wind of the project in early 2013, he saw an opportunity for the city to help through the “Parknership” program, a joint effort with the Coral Gables Community Foundation spearheaded by Kerdyk that funds beautification initiatives to improve the quality of life in the city.
He pushed the orchid project, and the city commission approved the funding from the “Parknership” — $5,000 a year for five years — at its March 11 meeting.
“It’s going to change the landscape of our community,” he said Friday.
Fairchild is looking to host a kickoff event on April 22 near city hall, where a first batch of orchids will be put in the trees.
Lewis said he hopes volunteers get to be the first to place and let go of their babies.
“We want them to be the first to go up in the bucket trucks,” he said.