Six months ago, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, working with Coral Gables, started sending plant-loving volunteers to graft orchids onto trees throughout the city.
The goals: Short term, place the first of 50,000 native orchids in trees that line Coral Gables streets, and as many as 250,000 there over the next five years. Long term, a five-year plan, the Million Orchid Project, calls for placing a million orchids throughout Miami-Dade County, bringing back the delicate plants after decades of development destroyed their habitat.
Placing a million orchids on the tree canopy is quite a feat; Fairchild has been growing seedlings at its Coral Gables garden to help the effort.
To expand the project and teach students about botany in a hands-on way, Fairchild is working with 30 Miami-Dade and Broward high schools. The teachers and students will grow the seedlings at their schools, in glass bottles that are similar to oversized test tubes.
The high school teachers went to the garden on Oct. 11 for special training from the Fairchild staff. Each received metal racks with fluorescent lights clipped on each shelf so students can place the glass bottles with tiny seedlings on the shelves and watch them grow.
“I’m taking the shelves home with me today and then to school on Monday,” said Brian Mealey, a science teacher at Palmer Trinity School. He is eager to bring the equipment to his students so they can do something different than what the school already offers: wildlife research with snakes and migratory birds.
“We have extensive wildlife research, and now we are bringing the botanical component,” he said.
The idea behind the project came from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which, since the mid-1990s, has been reintroducing native orchids to the city’s parks and streets. Carl Lewis, Fairchild’s director, traveled to the Asian city in 2012 and was amazed to see the program’s success. For the past year, Fairchild has been growing the seedlings to be used in the project. In April, volunteers began grafting the orchids onto the Coral Gables tree canopy.
In January, Fairchild staffers will go to each high school and help students move the plants from the bottles into larger trays with a dome, resembling a mini-greenhouse. The students are testing which soil mixture works best — a standard orchid mixture, a mixture with banana extract or an Australian formulation, Lewis said.
Every school is taking about 500 seedlings in 24 glass bottles. The staff and students will grow the cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum), which Lewis said is harder to grow than the species they had previously grown — the butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis).
“This particular species has been hard to grow outside the bottle,” Lewis said. “We are trying new mixtures to make more robust orchids coming out of the bottle.”
To grow successfully, orchids need a patch of tree bark with the proper species of symbiotic, microscopic fungus. When the staff and students move the plants from the bottles into the trays, they will experiment with a regular potting mix and a mix inoculated with fungi.
Jason Downing, a doctoral candidate at Florida International University and a Fairchild fellow, is using the orchid experiments with fungi as part his doctoral research.
“We looked at the interaction between orchids and fungi. Orchids need fungi to germinate,” he said.
Last year, students at TERRA Environmental Research Institute, a magnet high school in West Kendall, grew their own batch of seedlings as part of a pilot program. Tom Privett, the American government and debate teacher at TERRA and longtime Fairchild volunteer, helped link the garden with the school to see how propagating would work in the schools.
“We had an 87 percent success rate,” Privett said.
Daniela Menedez, 15, was one of the freshmen at TERRA who helped grow the orchids and then graft them onto tree branches at the school last year. Once the orchids matured, the Fairchild staff helped the students attach the orchids onto the tree branches around campus.
“Now I see them right outside the cafeteria,” Daniela said. “They’re still pretty tiny — they fit in the palm of my hand. They probably won’t be fully grown until I graduate.”
Arianna Medina, 15, said that working with the orchids was the freshman class project.
“I was really happy to do it last year,” she said. “I was very proud to help cultivate these plants.”
Students who participate in the Fairchild Challenge compete to win cash prizes of up to $1,000 and other individual recognition. For the first time last year, the program offered a paid six-week summer internship to high schools in the Challenge.
“It’s important to get these students into being citizen scientists,” Privett said. “To get them to see the practical application instead of just reading about it in a textbook.”