Suspended in what seems like mid-air, a rare ghost orchid in Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outside of Naples, Florida is in bloom—three months ahead of schedule. On March 26th, longtime volunteer Dick Brewer spotted the flower from the winding wooden boardwalk.
The leafless flower that is only pollinated by the giant sphinx moth usually flowers between June and August, so a bloom in March is highly unusual.
"We have had an exceptionally cold and wet winter this year, which may be reasons for the early bloom," said Ed Carlson, director of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, in Audubon’s press release. "But we are still investigating the mystery."
“Ghost orchids are listed as an endangered species in Florida, and just 1,000 or so known plants remain, mostly in the remote recesses of public preserves, like Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge,” writes features editor Rene Ebersole in an article printed in Audubon's November-December 2007 issue.
Poachers, like those in Susan Orlean’s bestseller, The Orchid Thief, have contributed to the plant’s demise. Habitat loss from logging and canal construction in the southern part of the state also dramatically decrease its numbers.
The white to creamy green blooms usually last 10 to 14 days, but the plant, found living on other trees like bald cypress, but deriving no nutrients from their hosts, can flower multiple times in a year. In 2007, one bloomed three times in Corkscrew between July and October.
There are 300,000 known orchid species in the world, “that can be as tiny as a pearl or as large as a softball and smell of everything from powder to cheese. Orchids were an integral part of Darwin’s study while he tested, experimented, and formulated his theory of evolution (he even wrote a book on the subject, titled Fertilisation of Orchids),” we wrote in a web exclusive in 2008. The epiphyte is yet another model of co-evolution, a process by which two organisms, in this case the giant sphinx moth and the ghost orchid (Polyrrhiza lindenii), affect each other’s evolution.
If you plan to visit, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located at 375 Sanctuary Road West, in Naples, Florida is open to visitors from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission to the boardwalk within one hour of closing is not allowed. The Sanctuary may close when severe weather threatens. For more information on admission fees, call (239) 348-9151.