The latest edition of Orchids magazine (the American Orchid Society) has just come out. In it, you will find an article I wrote (and took photos for) on our common and popular native orchid, Epidendrum magnoliae. The AOS publication has lately placed an emphasis on native orchids, with articles featuring US natives appearing monthly.
Epidendrum magnoliae is a rather common epiphyte in the state of Florida, inhabiting about 3/4 of the state (becoming absent in extreme southern Florida). It ranges outside of Florida into coastal regions of other southeastern states on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where its diminutive size allows it to hide in plain view in many hardwood hammocks and swamps, often nestled within colonies of resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides).
In any case, pick up a copy of Orchids if you're not subscribed (and, while you're at it, order a subscription to the magazine) and enjoy the article.
As of today, there are nine flowers open with five buds on the way. Looks like the venerable "Super Ghost" is gearing up for quite a show! If you have the means at all to get to the Naples, Florida area, this is well worth the time and effort.
The world-famous ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is beginning to bloom again! According to the Fort-Myers News-Press, the plant has two flowers showing and another ten buds developing. Below is a picture taken during its first known blooming in July of 2007. At the point this was taken, seven flowers remained on the plant:
This is the only ghost orchid where the location is made known widely to the public (all other plants are a closely guarded secret to prevent poaching), and going to see it doesn't involve getting wet, muddy, and overwhelmed with mosquito bites. When the ghost orchid is in bloom, volunteers place spotting scopes on the boardwalk pointed at the flowers, so they can be enjoyed as if they were up close. Here is a link to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary web site: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Website
Seeing one of these plants in the wild is an opportunity not to be missed!
Prem and family enjoying the ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp.
When we learned of this orchid back in 2007, we made the trek from the Orlando, Florida area down to the sanctuary just to the east of Naples. This was about a four-hour trip each way, but well worth the effort. We had visited the sanctuary on several occasions in the past and it has always been a favorite place for us. As you walk along the boardwalk from the visitor's center across the open pinelands and marshy area toward the swamp, it seems much like other boardwalks to other places you might experience. Soon you begin to penetrate the more open pond cypress swamp as you head further westward. Just about every branch is covered with species of bromeliads and the occasional orchid. Then you make the transition into the old-growth swamp and the sense of wonder becomes nearly overwhelming as you experience the old-growth cypress swamp. Large trees, festooned with every sort of epiphyte extend off into the distance, ringed around their bases with large ferns. Swamp lilies and hibiscus grow in the spaces between these, and smaller trees such as pond-apples and pop-ash form an understory that reaches to just overhead as you continue along the walk. It is like going back in time to a Florida that once was (as this type of ecosystem covered large tracts of our state at one time). It is also sad as you realize that most forests like this were logged as few as 50 years ago to pay for our "progress".
As you continue on with a profound sense of wonder tinged with sadness, you turn a corner to see a tiny crowd of people clustered around a few spotting scopes. With your naked eye, you can barely make out a wisp of white against a large, three-headed cypress far off like a giant trident planted in the swamp. A view through some good binoculars makes it possible to see it a little closer, but the spotting scopes really bring the flowers into close focus, every leg, every spur visible in the mass of flowers on this venerable, old plant. Not only is this plant easily viewable by visitors, it holds the record for the most flowers open on a single plant (12 flowers open out of 15 buds total) and the most flowers for a season (26 flowers in all). It bloomed three times again in 2008 (9 flowers in July -- I could find no reports of the flower counts for other months). No doubt this plant fluctuates from year-to-year as conditions seem more or less favorable for its flowering.
To read more about the ghost orchid in general, visit my Ghost Orchid Page. Enjoy! And get out there to the sanctuary to see this plant!
Dr. Carl Luer, author of The Native Orchids of Florida, was first made aware of this orchid in the late 1950's. It was not until several years later that he found plants of this species in flower, after several unsuccessful attempts. Described by Luer in 1966 and named Triphora craigheadii after the late Dr. Frank Craighead, Sr., entomologist and botanist at the Everglades National Park, this orchid is only known from a few localities in central Florida (and one or two possible localities from southern Florida). It may grow in many places, but it is so small as to be virtually undetectable, quietly inhabiting the understory of the understory of mixed oak/pine/juniper forests, where it grows as a terrestrial or occasionally a lithophyte over the limestone underlayment where it makes its home. As a genus, Triphoras are often quite small. This species is a liliputian even among Triphoras. I have included an image below with a U.S. penny placed in the shot to give an idea of the sense of scale.
To make it even harder to find these plants, they only bloom during the last week of June and first week or two of July. Were it not for the guidance of a good friend, I would not have these photographs to present to you today. Look for an update to the Florida Native Orchids website within the next few weeks with more information on this species.
Down in south Florida, in areas in and around the Big Cypress Swamp, the ghost orchids are beginning to bloom. Their accepted scientific name is now Dendrophylax lindenii (changed from Polyrrhiza lindenii and Polyradicion lindenii, but they are sometimes still referenced by their old names). It should be noted that nearly all land where these orchids grow are either federally or state protected lands. In addition, they are on the state endangered species list, so taking these from the wild can land someone in jail, or hit them with stiff fines. Further, the plants taken from the wild are very likely to die a rapid and miserable death away from their native environment. Taking wild plants is also entirely pointless, as one can purchase legally seed-grown seedling plants from several vendors, including Oak Hill Gardens, for a very reasonable price. Keep a legally purchased seedling alive and growing for 3-4 years and you're likely to have your first flower.
While there is a substantial population in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park, plants are usually quite inaccessible, requiring grueling hikes through swampy areas infested with mosquitoes, alligators and poisonous snakes (both rattlesnakes and water moccasins are seen frequently in these areas). In addition, those who know where plants are found are very reluctant to share this information anymore, as plants continue to turn up missing...so, the actions of a few very selfish individuals has spoiled it for the rest of us...there are no more public tours led by park staff into the deep swamps to see ghost orchids in bloom. This is truly a shame.
However, all hope is not lost to see a ghost orchid in bloom. In fact, there is one ghost orchid whose location has been made publicly known...it is the world-famous Corkscrew "Super" Ghost Orchid...one of the largest plants ever seen, with up to twelve flowers open simultaneously. It is well off the boardwalk and high up a tree, and thus not easily accessible. When in flower, park staff at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary will place spotting scopes on the boardwalk so that it can be easily seen. As I understand it, it is not yet in flower (it usually opens up in mid-July)...I will post an announcement to this blog as soon as I hear anything more.
You can see a new round of freshly posted ghost orchid photos on the Ghost Orchid Page:
While out photographing the previous Hexalectris spicata flowers, my daughters and I noticed one spike in the area that was decidedly paler than the other emerging spikes (which were already turning a dusky red). It was several weeks away from flower, so we flagged it for a colleague to observe when he was in the area...being closer, he was able to keep tabs on the flowers as they grew, so we were able to return when they had finally opened. This is a nearly alba form of Hexalectris spicata, with only the faintest color on the tepals and lip. A true albino form, fma. wilderi, would have no color at all, while fma. albolabia would have no coloration on the lip of an otherwise normally colored flower. This form has no formal description as of yet, although something very similar is pictured in Paul Martin Brown's Wild Orchids of Florida in the section on this species.
You can read more about this species on my website (and view the typical color form) at:
Canon Digital Rebel XTi, f22, ISO100, 1/200s. Flash through a diffuser. Composite of two photographs, one of the upper flower and one of the lower flower.
Unfortunately, most of the spike had wilted due to what appeared to be the nips of a hungry insectoid creature (although it could've been a fungal or bacterial rot), so these were the only good flowers remaining.
Florida's dancing lady orchid...Tolumnia bahamensis.
This little beauty, related to Oncidium, used to be found in quite a few wild areas in the coastal scrub in a very restricted area of southeastern coastal Florida...although due to its very restricted habitat, it has never been common, even in its heyday. Heavy development has all but wiped this species out, but a few plants still eke out a tenuous existence within a local state park and a very few remaining empty lots. While the land is protected where this species grows, collection by poachers continues to be a very real threat. This species is considered endangered in the state of Florida and is thus protected by state law.
For someone fortunate enough to be out in the field in one of these few localities, the search for plants is quite daunting...their heads of whitish flowers reach to the edge of the wild rosemary (not related to the spice) and palmetto scrub beneath an overstory of scrubby pine trees. To add to the insult for this species, seed pods seem to form only rarely, perhaps pointing to a decline in their natural pollinators...I would suspect copious use of pesticides in surrounding housing developments to keep boring, green lawns looking their best may be to blame, but that's only pure conjecture on my part. This is a more common species in the Bahamas, from whence its specific epithet is derived. It is also related to (and some would consider it synonymous with) Tol. variegata, which can readily be found in cultivation.
The plants themselves grow like a typical equitant Oncidium (i.e. Tolumnia) with somewhat narrower leaves arranged in small fans around microscopic pseudobulbs. Each fan is joined to the last by a rather long isthmus of rhizome (atypical for Tolumnias), which can actually look like an emerging flower spike before the leaves start to fan out at the tip. They grow in the bases of rosemary, palmetto, and/or pine twigs very low to the ground, with their root tips actually buried beneath the pine needle litter in the sand.
Each flower is between 1/2 and one inch across, depending on the plant (Luer shows a photo of a sheet covered with numerous individual flowers, showing marked variation in flower shape and size, in his epic work, The Native Orchids of Florida). The flowers are somewhat unpleasantly scented--the best way I can describe it is that it is similar to the smell of the commercial herbicide, Round-Up.
You can find out more about this species on its profile page on the Florida Native and Naturalized Orchid Website:
While vouchered specimens of this species have been found in many counties in the state of Florida, this species is rarely seen, as it blends in quite well with the surrounding forest, making it difficult to see until you are quite close. Then, the true beauty of these flowers is revealed. Each is a little over an inch wide and scented pleasingly of baby powder. I would consider this perhaps the second- or third-most attractive terrestrial orchid in the state of Florida (first is Cleistes bifaria, the Rosebud Orchid, which holds a special place in my heart as one of my first-observed native orchids).
The plants themselves bear no leaves, instead living in a mycotrophic relationship with fungi hosted (and consumed) in the coral-like roots. These fungi, in turn, send out mycelia throughout the soil and infect the roots of other plants, forming a network of nutrients funneled from one plant to another in a complex "nutrient highway" beneath the forest floor. While many orchids after the earliest seedling stage will bear leaves and begin to perform some of their own nutrient manufacture through photosynthesis, they never lose their fungal relationship entirely. The coralroots never grow beyond this earliest relationship, relying their entire lives on nutrients gathered from their fungi. Because of this delicate relationship, coralroots will die in short order if transplanted to another site.
You can read more about this species on my website at:
AKA Calopogon tuberosus, this particular flower was just shy of being a true alba, with just a pale flush of color in the lip and the bases of the sepals/petals. Typical flower color for these is a medium pink, with variants ranging from true alba to eye-searing magenta. Located in the same general vicinity as the Rose Pogonias posted a few days ago.
Pogonia ophioglossoides, known as the Rose Pogonia or Snakemouth Orchid, is one of the most far-ranging orchids on the North American continent, being found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as south-central Florida. It is a relatively common orchid of moist, acid bogs, wet meadows, and pinelands, blooming at the height of spring (early summer in the north). Plants most of the time have a single flower (sometimes lightly scented of raspberries), but occasionally, two- and even three-flowered plants will appear within large, robust colonies. This particular plant was growing along a roadside in west-central Florida.
While it is wrapping up its blooming in central Florida, northern Florida should see this beauty in bloom for several more weeks.
So, without further ado, here are the flowers of the shadow witch. These are flowers that I have wanted to see in person ever since seeing them in Luer's landmark book, The Native Orchids of Florida. First, we have the entire inflorescence. The flowers are about 1/2 inch (approx. 1 cm) across, ranging from whitish-cream to mint-green in color. They have a faint, citrusy fragrance.
and here is a flower close-up. Each individual flower is bent backwards to form a small landing platform. The lip faces inward toward the spike, with the petals and sepals forming a flat surface beneath the column with its curious tooth overlapping the small pollinia. All of the floral parts have a crystalline, sparkling texture. The ovaries and remainder of the flowering stem (as well as the backs of the flowers) are covered in fine hairs.
So, there you have a close-up view of these bewitching flowers.
This past year was special for me, as I have gotten to see many orchid species in bloom in the wild that I have not seen before. One of these was Ponthieva racemosa, also known as the Shadow Witch Orchid. Oddly enough, I've run across plants of this species since I was a teenager, but had been unable to get back to the locality during the fall when this species is in bloom. The closest I had come was seeing a plant rescued from a lot under construction in a subdivision near Tom Brown Park in Tallahassee, but since the plant was in a pot, that didn't have quite the same impact.
While out hunting for other woodland species, rosettes of P. racemosa leaves show up frequently. They are easy to spot with their light green that, when the sunlight catches them just right, shimmer like satin. These are plants inhabiting moist, shady woodlands and floodplains, growing in areas that are surprisingly wet, but very infrequently under water (the floods after T.S. Fay were a rare exception, where large swaths of woods were inundated in the floodwaters).
In November, as I headed out to one park to photograph several species (and hybrids) of fall-blooming ladies' tresses, I finally found a few of these plants in flower. Cross one more orchid off the list. So, what did the flowers look like? Well, you'll have to wait until another blog post to see those.
As has been stated before, Florida is at an intersection of the ranges of temperate species from the north and tropical species from the south. One such southern species, Cranichis muscosa, grows primarily in the Caribbean, West Indies, Central America, and northern South America. While some southern species, such as Encyclia cochleata, end up establishing themselves fairly well in the southern swamps, this orchid has never been common. It was first reported in 1903 in a collection most likely made in the Fakahatchee swamp. It had not been seen in Florida again for nearly a century. In 1991, a plant was reported and again in 2000, another suspect plant was reported in Miami-Dade County. This plant was subsequently stolen.
In 2004, a new small population was discovered somewhere in the Fakahatchee swamp area by Karen Relish and Mike Owen. This population is a closely guarded secret, so don't expect to see these plants in person anytime soon.
Interestingly enough, cultivated plants of this species from elsewhere in the Americas are very aggressive growers in the greenhouses of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, seeding themselves regularly into pots where they are not welcome. One of these plants was gifted to Paul Martin Brown, and it is a photograph of one of eleven inflorescences on his plant which I present below.
The plants consist of a basal rosette of glossy leaves with strong veination. The color is a lovely medium bluish-green.
The flowers are tiny...being only about 5 mm across, so this requires a good macro lens, excellent lighting, and little breeze to obtain a good photograph. My Sigma 105mm macro with my Canon Digital Rebel XTi did an adequate job of capturing these tiny jewels.
The upper floral part with the green speckles is the lip. The two petals act as a small winged platform below and to the sides of the column. The lateral sepals fold downward while the dorsal sepal folds back against the ovary. The column is a curious shape, with two pairs of winglike projections on either side and a highly curious tooth which projects downward and in front of the dorsal sepal. This orchid is, again, a wonder of miniaturization, with this complex structure being achieved with only a few thousands of cells, as opposed to the millions-plus that would make up a larger orchid flower, such as a larger-flowered Cattleya.
Many thanks to Paul Martin Brown for allowing me to photograph his cultivated plant.
Another sure sign of early spring is the emergence of the Southern Twayblade (Listera australis). I put a question mark in the title, as the common name (and the specific name australis - meaning 'southern') imply that this is an orchid only of the south. In fact, its range extends from near Sarasota, Florida to the north well into southern Canada, so it could just as easily be viewed as a northern species as a southern one. In my native haunts of yesteryear in Tallahassee, Florida, these plants would typically emerge in mid-February and persist through mid-March, depending on the population -- some sites would tend to bloom earlier than others. One time, I encountered a very large plant blooming in mid-June in an area to the northwest of Tallahassee, although this is very atypical. In central Florida, the plants are right now in full bloom, with a few stragglers still showing buds.
It is hard to appreciate how small these plants are until you see them in person. In fact, if you do see one, don't look away before you mark the spot, as it will likely take you several minutes to relocate the plant. In fact, this very thing happened to me the first time I found one as a teenager in the woods behind my house. The plant itself consists of a small stem, often tinged with purple, that supports two teardrop-shaped leaves. The leaves are a bit unusual for a monocot, as they almost seem to support a small network of veins rather than having strictly parallel veins. Typical leaf size is about 1 inch long by 1/2 inch wide, although especially large plants can have larger, wider, almost-round leaves about 1.5 inches in diameter. I have seen around 35 flowers on these more robust plants, where the typical flower count is around 8 or 9 per stem. The flowers themselves are about 1cm long and 2-3mm wide...extremely small and difficult to appreciate without the benefit of close up photography. Seedlings consist of just a pair of leaves without the flowering stem.
Below is a photo of a typical plant.
The flower structure, although miniaturized to the point that only a few hundred cells make up the petals, are still a typical orchid flower structure. Arranged around the central column is the usual cadre of three sepals, two petals and a disproportionately large lip. The lip curls around the column and then extends downward a ways before forking into two lobes. From a distance, these flowers look like pinheads with small threads glued onto them. Below is a closeup of just the flower.
Below are a few more shots taken during this same field trip.
Here in central Florida, spring is already underway. While many of the deciduous trees are still bare, several species of orchids take advantage of this greater amount of light reaching the forest floor to do their business of growing and/or reproduction. You've already met Wister's Coralroot in a previous post. Here is another of these spring orchids...Mesadenus lucayanus (formerly known as Spiranthes polyantha in Luer's work). It's common name is the Copper Ladies' Tresses (a number of members of the genus Spiranthes and related genera are called "Ladies' Tresses" or "Ladies' Traces" because they alternately reminded folks of the braid of a woman's hair or the laces of a bodice). It bears a basal rosette of light green leaves throughout the summer and right up to when it blooms in early spring. At this point the leaves are fading or already faded, the seedlings seeming to persist a little longer than mature, blooming-sized plants. This particular species is hard to find when in flower, its slender copper-colored spikes bearing 5mm wide flowers blending in quite well with the leaf litter that blankets the forest floor. Here are some photos taken over the weekend of this diminutive and elusive species:
Many thanks to Paul Martin Brown and Larry Roberts for cluing me into this particular locality for this species. Enjoy!
Many may not realize this, but central Florida is host to a very special tree. Named "The Senator", it is believed to be the oldest and largest baldcypress tree in the United States. Estimated to be 3500 years old, it started growing around the same time that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt occurred. It would have already been an impressive tree around the time of Christ's birth, having been around for 1500 years then. Here are some other statistics for this tree:
Age: 3500 years – one of the oldest trees in the U.S.A.
Diameter: 17.5 feet.
Circumference: 47 feet
Height: 118 feet
Board feet of wood: Approximately 50,000
Here is a photo of several of my children, several of my nieces and a family friend all near the tree. Note that the perspective effects of the wide angle setting on my camera makes the tree seem smaller than it is by comparison, as they are some 30 feet or so from the tree where they are standing. If they were all standing near the base, the tree would be roughly as wide as the whole group. This tree can be found in Big Tree Park in Lake Mary, Florida, along with its 2,000-year-old companion, Lady Liberty. The Cross Seminole Trail runs by this park as well, across US 17-92 and on into the Spring Hammock Preserve. The nearby Soldier Creek Trail boast several other large cypresses as well. To make a lame attempt to relate this back to orchids, we've seen three species along these trails, Epidendrum magnoliae, Spiranthes odorata, and Habenaria odontopetala.
Both the big trees at Big Tree Park evoke a sense of awe and wonder...each rising like a giant column out of the earth. Unlike younger cypresses which tend to be thin at the top and much wider at the bottom, these trees are roughly straight-sided all the way to their crowns high above. It is rather sad when you think that entire forests of giants like these used to roam our state before falling to the woodsman's axe.
In the presence of these ancient and mighty trees, it is easy to feel just how fleeting and ephemeral our lives really are.
Today, I went hiking with several of my children at our favorite local wildlife sanctuary, owned by Audubon of Florida. Sporting a 2-mile long trail, it is open to hikers and bikers from sunup to sundown. It is really a beautiful place--a riverine swamp with hardwood trees covered in various species of Tillandsia (and even a few Epidendrum magnoliae to boot). I was, in fact, making a short jog off the main trail to check up on one of these plants. It had several seedpods and one new flower, but nothing photogenic enough to capture in pixels.
Suddenly, I hear my children are yelling "Dad, a deer!". I came over quickly, expecting to see a live deer somehow browsing fearlessly nearby despite the yells from the children. Alas, it was not so...there before our eyes was a deer carcass, not even 24 hours dead, with a huge gash in the top of its head...it was the obvious work of poachers who wanted nothing more than the poor creature's antlers to hang up on their wall like some grisly prize. I was sickened and angered by what lay before me and what my children had to endure seeing this particular day.
Now, I am a happy omnivore and enjoy a good slab of meat on my plate, so I have no qualms with killing an animal for the purpose of eating it...but this...this was the senseless taking of a life just for a few inches of anatomy attached to its head. Further, the signs posted at the entrance and along the trail in this sanctuary make it abundantly clear that hunting is illegal in this area, so guests of this sanctuary jog, hike, and bike through the area with a sense of safety, not expecting to meet Bubba and Jim Bob with their guns pointed at them...and I seriously doubt that these were the responsible types of "hunters" who wait for a clear kill shot before shooting, so as not to wound the animal only but ensure a humane end to its life. In short, these idiots are putting human lives at risk for the purpose of their "sport", hiding in a no-hunting zone wildlife sanctuary and shooting at anything that moves.
I reported this incident to the Florida poaching hotline (aka the FWS wildlife alert hotline), along with geocoordinates from my handy GPS, at 888-404-3922. Apparently, poaching in Central Florida is becoming quite rampant, as is evidenced by this story. If you see a similar incident, please report it to the local authorities. While the senseless criminals got away with it this time, perhaps next time they won't.
This past weekend, a colleague and I were visiting an area in central-west Florida that is host to one of Florida's rarest endemic orchid species, only found within our state as far as anyone knows - Triphora craigheadii. It is likely that it grows elsewhere in tropical America, but its small size and secretive habit makes it very difficult to see. This same site hosts a number of plants of Copper Ladies Tresses (Mesadenus lucayanus), which were in bud, but not yet in flower, their slender coppery spikes blending in quite well with the fallen leaves. As we were poring over the site, looking to see if any T. craigheadii remained aboveground, we spotted some other coppery-colored spikes in full bloom. These, however, belonged to a completely different species, Corallorhiza wisteriana, also known as Wister's Coralroot or the Spring Coralroot. This plant is most notable in that it lives its entire life without ever growing a single leaf, relying instead on a special relationship to survive.
Most monotocotyledonous plants, such as corn and wheat, include a healthy dose of energy-rich starches in the seeds, which is what makes them useful to humans as a food source. As you may or may not be aware, orchid seeds are small and dust-like, containing only an embryo wrapped in a thin sheath without any nutrients added to the packet to get the seedling started on its new life. These seeds, in order to germinate, must fall in an area where specific fungi are growing...these fungi then begin to infect the seedling, and in the process begin to funnel nutrients through their mycelia into the plantlet. Thus, the orchid seedling begins its life in complete dependence upon the fungus. As the seedling grows, it typically develops its own leaves and begins the process of photosynthesis to produce some or most of its own nutrients. Its roots, however, will continue to host a population of these fungi, consuming bits of fungus at times, in a relationship termed myco-heterotrophy.
Coralroots are part of a unique group of orchids termed saprophytes, which continue to rely almost entirely on this fungal relationship for the necessary nutrients to live and grow. This particular species grows rather large underground root structures to host its fungi, which look a bit like a branching marine coral, hence the common name. The only clorophyll these plants ever produce is in very small quantities in the above-ground flowering stems, which come up briefly in the spring, to set seed and die back before a month has passed.
Their small flowers have a definite reptilian quality, looking like a number of tiny Cottonmouth snakes striking out at a hapless passerby. They are suffused typically with small purple polka-dots on all the floral parts, which looks particularly striking on the white lip. Here is a photo of one of the plants we saw that day. As we understand it, this was the first time this species has been observed growing at this particular site, probably because the main star here, T. craigheadii, blooms in June-July, and although Mesadenus do bloom here at this time, there is a site nearby where they are much more abundant...hence, I don't think anyone was watching this site at this time of year. Enjoy!
I am a software engineer based in the metro Orlando area. On weekends, you will often find me in the field with my family photographing Florida's native orchids. I also give lectures on these orchids at many orchid, garden, and native plant societies. I am also an avid fossil hunter.