Miami Beach City Commissioner Joy Malakoff delicately tied a rare Florida cowhorn orchid to a tree at City Hall Friday morning. She wrapped the burlap twine around the calophyllum branch three times, and secured the knot with construction-grade glue.
“I named it! That orchid’s name is now Joy!” she said at the ceremonial orchid planting. “I’m so happy about it, so I thought it was a good name.”
In an effort to bring the prominence of orchids back to the urban area, the city of Miami Beach is joining Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Million Orchid Project, which aims to plant 20,000 native orchids on the island over the next three years. The city joins municipalities like Coral Gables, Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Bal Harbour and South Miami to revitalize the orchid population in conjunction with the project.
The project is bringing back endangered native orchids such as the butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis), pine pink (Bletia purpurea) and the Florida dancing lady (Tolumnia bahamensis). The rare and difficult-to-grow Florida cowhorn (Cyrtopodium punctatum), which Malakoff planted, was also introduced.
South Florida was once lush with wild orchids growing on oak and mahogany trees, but habitat loss and orchid poaching depleted the species into near oblivion. That is, until the Million Orchid Project came along.
Since 2014, the Million Orchid Project has worked to restore the presence of orchids in public spaces throughout Miami-Dade County, reintroducing about 85,000 rare orchids into the urban landscape. Volunteers, students and scientists provide the manpower.
“This project is bringing back some of our lost native orchids to the urban landscape,” said Jason Downing, an orchid biologist at the garden. “It’s a different twist on traditional conservation.”
Miami Beach city officials and landscapers are now tasked with taking care of the trees and finding the best spots for orchids, and residents will be asked to monitor the orchids growing in their neighborhoods using a Florida International University-developed app, which rolls out later this summer.
According to Carl Lewis, the garden’s director, 2017 is the biggest year of the project to date. Over 100,000 more orchids will be planted around the county, which means more people can get involved.
“Residents will become stewards of their environment,” Lewis said. “Miami Beach is a place where hundreds of thousands of people will see them.”
In addition to a few Miami Beach residents, several student volunteers from STEMLab, a mobile lab designed by University of Miami students, also attended the planting. Over 40 schools across the county use the mobile lab to test growing environments, plant their own orchids and track progress. Many of the high school students intern for the garden, conducting crucial research used by biologists.
Myles Covington, a recent graduate of Cutler Bay Senior High School, participated in STEMLab at the high school level and is now an intern at the garden.
“The native orchid is part of the identity for Florida,” said Covington, 18, of Homestead. “I feel like when they’re being lost so quickly, we’re losing part of our identity.”
Megan Molina, a rising sophomore at FIU, said she got involved in the project after a tour of the gardens for her freshman biology class.
“So many of these species are dying out and we don’t even realize it,” said Molina, 19, of Kendall. “For us to replant everything and restore what was once here is really important.”