Miami-Dade County

People almost wiped out orchids in South Florida. Now the beloved plants are making a comeback.

The orchid plants started out as tiny seedlings in bottles.
The orchid plants started out as tiny seedlings in bottles. Maureen Tan

The 30,000 orchids now growing in some Miami-Dade cities began their lives as tiny dust-like seedlings in glass bottles, specks of hope that have grown into a promising start to bringing back rare and endangered species of orchids that were once abundant in South Florida.

Since the beginning of the Million Orchid Project in 2014, a push to reintroduce the colorful plants into Miami-Dade’s urban landscape, the plants have been transplanted along public streets in Coral Gables, Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay and even seaside Bal Harbour. Working for the love of the green thumb, an army of volunteers, high school students and researchers have nurtured the seedlings into five-inch plants that are now attached to trees and growing in the ground.

Consider it an all-out orchid blitz.

“This is massive,” said Jason Downing, the orchid biologist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden who is leading the charge. “This is a big outreach, citizen science project.”

In around 15 to 20 years, around all these schools, orchids will be growing on their own like they used to.

Jason Downing, orchid biologist at Fairchild

Taking the science of orchids to the people is a major facet of the project, which started with a goal of planting a million orchids in five years. The project won’t meet that goal, but the expectation is that there will be a foundation for orchids to spread exponentially on their own in the next few decades. The key is volume — to plant so many orchids that neither nature nor humans can hinder the growth. Over time, the wind will carry seedlings along and leave them in new places to thrive.

Fairchild officials say they are committed for the long haul. “It’s really as long as it takes,” said Amy Padolf, director of education at the garden.

The reality is the return of the orchid is a long-term deal. It takes time to prepare for planting outside a greenhouse in a public space, and there has been some trial and error. At some sites, more than 90 percent of the orchids have survived so far. In other spots, fewer than 10 percent have made it.

“This project is a living experiment,” Downing said. “We’re adapting our protocols based on what works and what doesn’t work.”

Adaptation is key in what Downing said makes this experiment unique — the large-scale reintroduction of native orchids to a dense and complicated urban environment. The focus has been mostly on cities and their built-up neighborhoods, and more communities are on deck to join the effort this year.

It’s going like a house on fire. We’re making a big comeback.

Martin Motes, Fairchild research associate

Downing met with Miami Beach’s arborist this week to scout sites for planting. Doral, West Kendall, Brickell Key and South Miami will also get orchids this year.

“It’s going like a house on fire,” said Martin Motes, a research associate at Fairchild and owner of Motes Orchids in Redland. “We’re making a big comeback.”

Funding and other support for that comeback is coming from multiple entities including Fairchild, the American Orchid Society, grants and cities that pay to participate.

South Florida was once lush with wild orchids growing on oak and mahogany trees, but the orchid population was devastated by unchecked harvesting and habitat loss. As development squeezed orchid habitat, people ripped the plants out of trees and shipped them up north to sell as cheap house plants.

It was a far cry from the love and respect orchid enthusiasts have for the plant.

Budding orchid lovers at more than 40 high schools will now have the experiment come to them in a school bus that has been renovated and turned into a lab.

Among the newly initiated: Miami-Dade students. Last year, Fairchild sponsored a program in which several hundred middle and high schoolers helped grow orchids in labs.

This year, more students will be able to participate after the school system donated a decommissioned bus to Fairchild and University of Miami design students built a fully functional lab inside it.

Budding orchid lovers from more than 40 high schools will now have the experiment come to them in the bus, dubbed the mobile STEMLab. The teens will be conducting crucial research. They’ll test different growing environments and collect data that will help researchers understand how to best promote the orchid growth. Then the students get to plant the orchids at their schools.

“In around 15 to 20 years, around all these schools, orchids will be growing on their own like they used to,” Downing said.

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). Another very rare and difficult-to-grow species, the Florida Cowhorn (Cyrtopodium punctatum), has also been planted in a few areas. More species will be introduced this year.

Working with Florida International University, Fairchild will soon release a mobile application that will allow volunteers in the field to assist in data collection. As citizen scientists, they’ll be able to take photographs and note the condition of planted orchids.

So far, the orchid project has been a massive team effort. Anyone interested in getting trained and volunteering can learn more at fairchildgarden.org.

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