Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Year Ago Today: Giant Cigar Orchid with the Milky Way

A year ago, on this date, I set off with three of my children, Emily, Isaac, and Kenny to attempt an ambitious undertaking deep in the Everglades.

Left to Right: Emily, Kenny, Isaac, and myself.

Earlier that week, the news came in from other nature photographers that the Giant Cigar Orchid deep in the Everlgades was in full, spectacular bloom again--a little early this particular year.  I had visited this magnificent specimen with several of my children on quite a few occasions (almost yearly since we were made aware of it).  

Daughters Sarah (left) and Hannah (Right) showing the scale of this monstrous plant.

It has been photographed many times by many people, and one particularly intriguing photo was taken by one Stephen Shelley in 2015 with the Milky Way behind it.

It was my ambition to duplicate his photograph.

I had discussed this possibility with my wife, Joy, and she admitted that while Mr. Shelley's photograph was stunning, the thought of going out into the wild at night seemed just this side of completely nuts.  The 2016 blooming of this orchid came and went, with kids very busy with their college studies, and I was not able to catch up with this orchid at all that particular year, day or night.

So, with the 2017 blooming underway, Joy and I discussed this idea again.  I made the argument to her that this orchid, blooming in the middle of a salt marsh attached to a dead buttonwood tree stump, might not always be there...a good, strong storm or just the process of decay could cause the stump to break and plunge the orchid into the salt marsh below. We could never be certain when its last blooming ever might be.

This argument was persuasive enough, and she was fully on board, if still a bit nervous about the trip--I did assure her that most larger fauna tended to avoid this area.  The process of preparing for this trip was time-consuming and expensive.  We decided to take as many of my teenagers as possible, which required purchasing food, water, mosquito-mesh clothing, flashlights, bug repellent, some camping chairs to sit through the night...the list was extensive.  One thing that Joy thoughtfully purchased for us was a lightweight, easy-set-up tent for 4 that could give us some shelter from the mosquitoes for awhile.

The mosquitoes at this part of the park are usually not very plentiful in spring, but this year, they came early.  Later in the summer is usually when they become plentiful--maddeningly fast, small and abundant--the salt marsh mosquitoes there are the stuff of legend. 

Looking at the weather and tracking the stars in my phone app, it seemed that Saturday, March 18 was the best day to drive down, staying through the next Sunday morning.  I did have one grave concern: the moon would be around half full and centered in a portion of the galaxy, presenting a risk of washing out everything but the brightest of stars.  The brightest part of the galaxy would be up around 5 am

With the car packed to the brim with gear of all kinds, we set off with the goal of reaching the Cigar Orchid an hour or two before sunset.  We arrived at the park entrance in the early afternoon.

At the park entrance.

It then involved a drive to the other end of the park, parking, suiting up in our mosquito gear, and then hiking to where the orchid flowered.  Upon arrival at the other end of the park, we immediately regretted not already having donned our mosquito gear.   Each of us easily endured dozens of bites before we managed to get suited up.  Even fully suited, the mosquitoes managed to find parts where the cloth came close to our skin, biting us mercilessly on our hike out.

We arrived at the Cigar Orchid just in time to set up before sunset.  Another individual was there from Fairchild Gardens--he was hoping to get some star trail photographs later that night, but the half-clouded sky caused him to leave to return some other day.  This same sky made for some very dramatic sunset shots.

Cigar Orchid at Sunset.

Once the sun was fully set, we opened up our camping chairs, lit an Off brand citronella candle in a metal bucket (which proved entirely useless in repelling mosquitoes) and settled in for the long wait until galaxy rise early the next morning.

Sitting in our chairs, illuminated by candlelight.

As the night progressed, I set up the camera and fired a few test shots.  The clouds were still lingering, causing me a bit of consternation.

After a while, the mosquitoes became even more maddening and we decided to use the pop-up tent as a mosquito shelter. So, we put out the candle and set it up, leaving off the top rain flap so we could have a clear view of the sky through the mesh.  We could also see the massive Cigar Orchid just outside through the mesh as well, our constant companion through the night.  "Hello, you big, beautiful orchid!" escape my lips more than once as I shone my flashlight through the mesh and illuminated its cloud of saffron and crimson flowers.

Eventually the clouds cleared, revealing one of the most beautiful dark, starlit skies through the top mesh of our tent. Little did we know, but the Anthelion meteor shower was at maximum, giving us quite a show as each of us spotted at least nine or 10 meteors over the course of the next few hours through the top mesh of our tent.

The tent certainly provided welcome relief from the mosquitoes.  We hunted down any strays that had gotten in and settled in for the few hours until picture time.  Many cell phone alarms were set for around 4:30 AM just in case we dozed off.  It was not necessary--I took several light catnaps, noticing that the half moon was starting to shine into our tent.  I was vigilant to any noise on that calm night, although large mammals and crocodilians don't really venture into this area much.  We heard a few stirrings in the night, but nothing came near our tent.

4:30 AM came to a chorus of alarms.  The morning had become quite cold, with temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit.  I went out to check on the camera, which had become bedewed in the cold morning air.  I wiped it down and fired a few test shots and made some adjustments.  A few more shots and I realized that these pictures were going to be quite special--the moon was not entirely washing out the galaxy, but providing enough illumination for the scene without the need to try any "light painting".  I recomposed the shot vertically to include the half moon, the galaxy, and the orchid illuminated only by moonlight.

Here are some of the raw images from that night.

15 second exposure.

30 second exposure.

The result, when several shots of different exposures were combined together was nothing short of magical...a seemingly otherworldly scene, but entirely of this earth.  In this scene, the orchid is only about fifteen feet away, the treeline another 300 feet away, the moon some 250,000 miles away, and the stars making up the Milky Way--dozens to thousands of light years away:

Cigar Orchid by Moon (and Galaxy) light.

Inspired by our ethereal companion from earlier, I decided to set up the camera on the opposite side of the plant and try to get some star trails.  Thankfully, my camera had the ability to work with a remote app on my phone via wi-fi, so with my hand bundled well in mosquito mesh, I held the bulb button down on my phone for 15 minutes at a time.  We did this until dawn, capturing a few more magical photographs:

Cigar Orchid with star trails.

As dawn approached, we packed up all of our supplies and started to make our way back, first illuminated by flashlight, but by increasing daylight as we approached the edge of the marsh and our parked car.  We piled in and slaughtered any stray mosquitoes that made it into the car as we made our way home.

These photographs have indeed proven to be something special, winning several photography contests over the past year.

Sadly, Hurricane Irma felled this orchid, plunging most of it into the flooded salt marsh below.  A naturalist managed to rescue a few living pieces of it, transplanting those into living trees in the hammock nearby, where, hopefully, they will take root and live on.  This, magnificent specimen in all its glory in the middle of an open marsh, however, is now lost to the ravages of nature and time.  I never realized how prophetic my argument would be that this orchid might not always be with us.

Yet, we will always remember it, and that day, one year ago, when we set out on one of the most ambitious photography excursions of our lives.

Prints of these award-winning photographs are available in a variety of formats, from matted photos at $15 to $25 per print to gallery-wrapped canvases at $60 per print to prints on metal (inquire about metal print pricing).  You should see the galaxy image on metal hanging in our home - it is truly stunning.  Contact me at to inquire about ordering prints.  Proceeds from these sales help support the Florida Native Orchids web site and fund more photography excursions such as this one.

See more photos of this species here:

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Ghost Orchid's Islander Cousin

The genus Dendrophylax, which includes the Florida Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), is rather widespread throughout the Caribbean.  One easier-to-grow, but slightly less impressive, plant in this genus is Dendrophylax funalis, hailing from Jamaica.  The plants consist of a rather conspicuous, leafless growing stem with a number of gray-green roots which radiate out from this stem. Flowering stems also emerge from this growing stem, typically in the winter into spring.

The flowers bear some similarity to their Floridian cousin, lacking the long tails on the lip, bearing a shorter spur, and having medium-green tepals. Flower size is slightly smaller as well. However, just like D. lindenii, these flowers are fragrant at night, having a fragrance somewhat a mix of freshly sliced apples and fresh mushrooms.

This species is more forgiving than other members of its genus, requiring culture similar to that of many Vanda orchids - moderate water, occasional fertilizer, and medium-bright light. It is also more available in cultivation than D. lindenii, so it is a good way to get one's feet wet in leafless orchid culture before trying the harder-to-grow Floridian species.

Here is a photo of a recent flower on my cultivated Dendrophylax funalis:

Dendrophylax funalis

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Helping Victims of Sex Trafficking: The Porch Light and the #ShineALight Challenge

One cause that our family has become keenly aware of, and far more concerning than the loss of our natural ecosystems harboring native plants and animals, is the issue of human trafficking. Before not too long ago, we were not aware how prevalent this issue is, especially in central and southern Florida, which are major hubs for human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking. This is not a problem that occurs in faraway places like Thailand and Guyana, but one that occurs here in the United States. According to, "It is estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the U.S. annually."

The Porch Light (click to visit their website) is a ministry founded by the Florida Baptist Children's Homes to provide a safe haven for child victims of domestic sex trafficking here in central Florida. Quoting from their website:

Even at this moment, there is a young girl falling victim to the dark world of sex trade.

A predator is gaining her trust, maybe a “friend” she met online. Every year, there are as many as 300,000 children like her in the U.S. who are at risk of being sexually exploited. Many of these girls are being prostituted and face the threat of rape, STDs and even death. The Porch Light is helping these girls begin a new life. We are also working to prevent more innocent children from becoming victims while predators financially profit.

It’s simple, really. Our light will shine until every young girl who has been victimized by sex trafficking is rescued, restored and set free. Similar to parents who leave the porch light on waiting for their daughter to return, our faith-based program symbolizes the love of Christ – a light that shines so bright and a love and peace that transforms lives.

Now, lives are changing because of The Porch Light. Girls stay in the safe home for 9-12 months, depending on individual and specific needs. The safe home is at an undisclosed location for the protection and security of the victims and is staffed by a director, mental health counselor and female caregivers. Each girl has her own bedroom and bathroom within a residential suite.

In addition to providing necessary care to victims, The Porch Light also includes sex trafficking prevention and advocacy efforts. The Porch Light representatives partner with law enforcement to educate in schools, churches and community groups to prevent more girls from becoming victims of the growing sex trade.

I was made aware of The Porch Light by a post that former FSU (my alma mater) head coach Bobby Bowden had posted to Facebook, asking folks to consider donating to this worthy cause. I had noticed listed on their web site that one of the practical needs of the girls was nicely furnished rooms, including wall decor.

It just so happened that we had a number of our native orchid canvas prints left over from the last show. My wife, Joy, got in touch with Lynn Barna, administrative assistant at the Porch Light, with the intent to donate these canvases. They were more than grateful to receive our gift--it warms my heart to know that my photos might in some small way make a girl's room feel a little more like home as she recovers from the awful abuse of sexual exploitation.

Lynn Barna, Joy, and myself and one of the canvases we are donating to The Porch Light.

Now I would like to challenge you to Shine a Light on the darkness of child sexual exploitation. Follow this link: and consider how you can give (even a small gift of $5) to the cause of helping young victims of sexual exploitation in their process of recovery.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Wall Calendars! or Christmas and Other Holiday Gift Ideas Featuring Florida's Orchids - Part 2

Wall calendars are always a great way to share beautiful photographs of Florida's wild orchids with loved ones.  Proceeds go to helping our continued efforts to keep up our educational websites and add additional material, taken from numerous field trips per year to observe and photograph orchids in the wild all over the state of Florida.  This effort is entirely funded from our pockets and from proceeds from merchandise sales and speaker fees when giving presentations at orchid societies, etc.  Our websites are free to use and continue to be a source of education and advocacy for our native orchids.  I regularly receive e-mails from folks who find orchids in the wild and request identification. We also regularly donate photos for use in educational displays, orchid society newsletters, and educational websites.

So far, we have never had any advertising on our blog or website, and that is what we continue to hope to do into the future.

We have four different calendars to choose from this year. Clicking an image below will take you to the on-line store where those calendars are available. Each calendar is $19.99 plus applicable taxes and shipping.

First up, we have our most popular calendar to date, the Florida's Endangered Orchids calendar, featuring 12 photographs of orchids from Florida's endangered orchid list, including the rare, elusive and famous Ghost Orchid.

Next, we have our highly prized "Orchids of Peninsular Florida" calendar, featuring native and naturalized species found growing in the central to southern portions of our state.

Next, we have our original and very popular calendar, updated for 2016 - Florida's Native Orchids, featuring many orchids photographed in northern Florida.

Finally, we have our second ever calendar release, Florida's Wild Orchids, also updated for 2016. This calendar features twelve new photos of orchid species ranging throughout the state, including one naturalized species, the Soldier or Lawn Orchid.

We wish you a joyous Advent season from Florida's Native and Naturalized Orchids.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Christmas and Other Holiday Gift Ideas Featuring Florida's Orchids - Part 1

The Holiday season is upon us, and while you could purchase all sorts of things for your loved ones from Ugly Christmas Ties to a Shark Laser Pointer, you can better show your loved ones you care about them (and the environment) by purchasing products featuring Florida's lovely native orchids. Proceeds from the sale of these products go toward orchid and native plant conservation efforts, as well as upkeep on our myriad websites educating folks on our natural treasures here in Florida.

These products are assembled here in America through our product distributor, Cafe Press.

So, for the next few posts over the next few days, we will be featuring gift ideas that we have put together featuring my award-winning photography of Florida's native and naturalized orchids.

First up, we have a number of products that we have commissioned featuring Florida's iconic orchid, the Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis).  It is one of the most commonly seen orchids from central to southern Florida, growing happily on various hardwoods, conifers, and even the occasional palm tree.

Click on the picture below to visit our Cafe Press shop featuring all sorts of products (t-shirts, pajamas, sweatshirts, hoodies, calendars, bumper stickers, gift cards, etc) graced with one of our most lovely orchid species:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Compendium of American Orchids

FTD has put together an awesome graphic showing a number of orchid genera and how they are related to each other.  As you may know, the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) is the largest plant family, consisting of some 25,000 different species.  The orchids are also incredibly diverse in size, shape, color, etc., with flowers ranging from microscopic to the size of dinner plates.

Within this very large group of plants, we find a number of Subfamilies, Tribes and Subtribes, that link together plants with similar characteristics--both plant and flower structure.  

This can be quite confusing to many, so the graphic FTD has produced really helps to visualized the linkages between these different types of orchids.  Here it is, in all its glory:

Produced by

A Compendium of American Orchids

Be sure to click on the image to visit the FTD blog site.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Winners of the 2015 Florida Wildflower Photography Contest Announced

The winners of this year's Florida Wildflower Photography Contest have been announced, and one of my photos took Honorable Mention (effectively third place).  

Here is my award-winning photo:

Thank you to everyone for voting for this photo during the public vote phase of the contest.  Here is the link to see all the winners:

Florida Wildflower Photography Contest 2015 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Recent Speaking Engagement - Volusia County Orchid Society

I recently spoke at the Volusia County Orchid Society on August 19th, 2015.  Thank you so much to the society for hosting me.

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