Rare Ghost Orchid Blooms Early At Audubon's Corkscrew Sanctuary

Published: Mar 30, 2010
Naples, FL - 
It's rare, it's beautiful and its blossoms appear to be floating in mid-air. But the so-called "ghost orchid" is real, and it is putting on an unusual spring show at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida. The elusive endangered plant is blooming three months earlier than usual.

The bloom was discovered Friday, March 26; normally ghost orchids bloom between June and August, with the peak blooming season in July. "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. "But we are still investigating the mystery."

The ghost orchid (Polyrrhiza lindenii) is an extremely rare, epiphytic orchid that grows on the trunks of trees in a small concentrated area of Southwest Florida. The ghost orchid was originally discovered in Cuba. The plants are usually visible only to intrepid adventurers who hike through hip deep water in the area's cypress swamps to reach them. The ghost orchid, preyed upon by poachers, was the subject of Susan Orlean's bestseller The Orchid Thief and the subsequent movie Adaptation.

Ghost orchids are so-called because the bloom appears to float in mid-air. Area biologists nicknamed this Corkscrew specimen the "Super Ghost," since this particular orchid has had as many as twelve blossoms; typically ghost orchids might have between one and three blossoms per year, each bloom occurring one after the other. The Corkscrew orchid now has one bloom. Thought to be decades old, Corkscrew's ghost orchid was discovered in July of 2007, when two visitors looking for barred owls spied it though a new opening in the trees. The orchid is listed on the Appendix II of CITES and is fully protected by Florida state and federal laws.

Only a thousand or so of these orchids remain in the world, mostly in remote parts Florida. Habitat loss –including logging in Fakahatchee Strand, and the digging of the canal system throughout South Florida, reduced the orchid numbers dramatically. Poachers tempted by high sale prices did more damage, only to discover that ghost orchids rarely survive being transplanted. Too, pollination depends on only one species of insect, the giant sphinx moth, the only local insect with a long enough proboscis. The Sphinx moth itself is becoming rare.

The ghost orchid is one of a number of extraordinary species of plant and wildlife that make Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary their home. The 13,000 acres also protect the largest stand of old growth bald cypress in North America. Because of its unique and rich biodiversity, Corkscrew was officially designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2009, underscoring the need to protect this vital resource from a host of threats, including invasive species and development in sensitive watersheds for which Corkscrew serves as an essential link. Nearly 200 species of birds thrive in the sanctuary, renowned as home to America's largest nesting colonies of Wood Stork, a federally endangered species. The storks nest in majestic 600-year-old bald cypress, reaching heights of 40 meters.

Orchid lovers have a window of about two weeks to spot the ghost orchid bloom. Visitors to the sanctuary will find spotting scopes for easy close-up views set up along the sanctuary's boardwalk. Serious photographers should bring long lenses, as the plant is growing at a height of about 50 feet on the trunk of a bald cypress tree located 150 feet from the boardwalk.

Background on the ghost orchid, including video clip www.corkscrew.audubon.org/Wildlife/GhostOrchid.html

Story with photos about this same orchid blooming last year in web exclusive for Audubon magazine http://audubonmagazine.org/fieldnotes/fieldnotes0711-orchids-webExclusives.html

For photo of the Corkscrew ghost orchid please contact Traci Romine, tromine@audubon.org.

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Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located at 375 Sanctuary Road West, in Naples, FL 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. www.corkscrew.audubon.org

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The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at www.audubon.org and @audubonsociety.

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