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Super 'ghost orchid' in bloom at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

The “ghost orchid” is the largest one ever discovered, and its blossoms draw international attention among the uber-enthusiastic world of orchid lovers.

A rare orchid, which uses the skills of a magician to appear from nowhere and seemingly float in the air next to its host tree, is in bloom at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

First seen in 2007, this “ghost orchid” is the largest one ever discovered. Its blossoms draw international attention among the uber-enthusiastic world of orchid lovers.

“I love seeing the first ghost orchid blossom of summer for its beauty and hope,” said Lisa Korte, the director of the sanctuary. “This delicate, dancing, white flower shows that we are protecting Corkscrew Swamp in a manner that allows nature to thrive – we are lucky to have one of these amazing orchids visible from our boardwalk.”

The orchid’s ghostly name is due to something quite simple: The flower has no leaves, and when not in bloom, its roots blend right in with the bark on the tree. But with summer rain and humidity, the orchids burst forth “out of thin air” and produce blossoms that look a bit like floating ghosts.

Throughout the year the orchids gather nutrients from the atmosphere or from the surface of their host tree, yet do not harm its host at all. These days the ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary mainly blooms between June and October.

Audubon Florida’s records show that in 2015 the ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp's earliest blooms were seen on Jan. 25, setting a new early-blooming record. Two years later the flower bloomed in November and early December. Along with past blooms during the typical summer months the Corkscrew Swamp ghost orchid has bloomed, collectively, every month of the year.

One of several ghost orchids at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, this one is in a bald cypress tree about 70 feet off the ground and roughly 100 feet away from their winding boardwalk.

Orchid obsession

The orchid family (Orchidaceae) is the second-largest group of flowering plants, with about 880 genus and some 26,000 species distributed nearly worldwide. According to ‎Encyclopedia Britannica, orchids are perennial herbs with unusual, often symmetric flowers. Inside are masses of pollen seeds more reminiscent of dust.

While the ghost orchid is a very special representative of the orchid family, orchids in general have a very special family of enthusiasts that some would describe as obsessed with the beautiful plants.

Orchid researchers routinely travel to faraway swamps and tropical forests searching for new species, which they often name after themselves or a spouse or child.

Sometimes orchid enthusiasts break federal law in their pursuits, as happened when several orchidologists associated with Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in downtown Sarasota became embroiled in international intrigue that ended with the institution itself and a retired orchid collector from Vermont pleading guilty in a federal courtroom in Tampa.

The tale is long and complicated. It started in 2002 when by all accounts a stunningly beautiful orchid was brought to the gardens from where it was discovered on a hillside in Peru. In the rush for orchid glory and millions of dollars in orchid sales once propagated and made available commercially, corners were cut, questionable decisions were made, and careers were derailed, including that of Meg Lowman, the famed pioneer in forest canopy ecology who was serving as the garden’s executive director at the time.

Lowman chronicled the orchid outrage her book “It’s A Jungle Up There: More Tales From The Tree Tops.”

In the end, the orchid was returned to Peru. The mountainside on which it was discovered was decimated by others obsessed with finding an exceptional orchid, too.

The Sarasota incident did not dent American enthusiasm for the flowers, and all the publicity might have helped make orchids even more appealing.

In 1996, the U.S. imported just short of 250,000 pounds of orchids. Last year, according to the Census Bureau, American imports of live orchids reached an all-time high of 11 million tons growing the flowers indoors.

“Orchids have no equal: They are breathtakingly beautiful, delicate, long-blooming, long-lived, fascinating in fragrance and form, and extremely varied. Few pleasures in gardening surpass the thrill of seeing orchids thrive and bloom. Here’s everything you should know about growing orchids and caring for orchids—and we’ve listed the most common orchid varieties,” the editors wrote.

“Once rare and expensive, orchids now outsell every other houseplant, surpassing even African violets, chrysanthemums, and poinsettias. This is because modern cloning techniques allow for mass production of plants, and cultivation that used to take seven years from seed to bloom now takes only two.”

Ghost orchid comes into focus

In the summer of 2018, a pair of National Geographic photographers brought the focus to the ghost orchid in the Corkscrew Swamp in Naples.

Mac Stone and Peter Houlihan were in a treetop within the sanctuary prepping to take a first-ever photograph of the moth thought to pollinate the rare and endangered flower.

They got the shot. But the scientific community had been wrong about which moth actually did the pollinating. Instead of the giant sphinx moth, it was … a fig sphinx moth.

Once again, big news in the orchid community was coming out of Southwest Florida.

“When I climbed up to check the trap and the image flashed on the screen, my heart nearly stopped,” Stone said at the time. “I didn’t actually think this would work right away.

"It’s humbling to think that what started as a seemingly impossible idea five years ago, could actually blossom into something meaningful for science, conservation, and this ancient subtropical forest that I have come to love so much.”

Discount for locals

To see the blooms, orchid enthusiasts should bring a strong spotting scope, binoculars, or a camera with a strong telephoto lens. Several days a week, sanctuary naturalists wearing khaki-colored uniforms will be on the boardwalk, ready to answer questions and point out the sights and sounds of the swamp for visitors.

Tickets to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary should be purchased online, and are half price through September for residents of Lee, Collier, and Hendry counties.

The Blair Audubon Center, at 375 Sanctuary Road in Naples, is open daily, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The discounted admission is $8 for adults, $3 for youth and children 5 years old and under are free. Regular admission is $17 for adults, $6 for kids 6-14 years old, and kids 5 years old and under are free.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.

Tom Bayles