Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow: Ghost Orchid Information And Facts

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A white ghost orchid flower blooming in the wild

What is a ghost orchid, and where do ghost orchids grow? This rare orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii , is found primarily in humid, marshy areas of Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida. Ghost orchid plants are also known as white frog orchids, thanks to the frog-like shape of the odd-looking ghost orchid flowers. Read on for more ghost orchid information.

Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow?

With the exception of a handful of people, nobody knows exactly where ghost orchid plants grow. The high level of secretiveness is to protect the plants from poachers who attempt to remove them from their natural environment. Like most wild orchids in the United States, ghost orchid plants are also threatened by loss of pollinators , pesticides, and climate change .

About Ghost Orchid Plants

Blooms have a white, other-worldly appearance that lends a mysterious quality to ghost orchid flowers. The plants, which lack foliage, look like they’re suspended in air as they attach themselves to tree trunks via a few roots.

Their sweet nighttime scent attracts giant sphinx moths that pollinate the plants with their proboscis – long enough to reach pollen hidden deep within the ghost orchid flower.

Experts at University of Florida Extension estimate that there are only about 2,000 ghost orchid plants growing wild in Florida, although recent data suggests there may be significantly more.

Growing ghost orchid flowers at home is nearly impossible, as it’s extremely difficult to provide the plant’s very particular growing requirements. People who manage to remove an orchid from its environment are usually disappointed because ghost orchid plants almost always die in captivity.

Fortunately, botanists , working hard to protect these endangered plants , are making great progress in devising sophisticated means of seed germination. While you may not be able to grow these orchid plants now, perhaps one day in the future it will be possible. Until then, it’s best to enjoy these interesting specimens as nature intended – within their natural habitat, wherever that is, however, still remains a mystery.

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11 Enchanting Quirks of the Rare Ghost Orchid

are ghost orchids real

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The ghost orchid is aptly named for a few reasons. Its white flowers have a vaguely spectral appearance, and they seem to hover in the forest due to an illusion created by the leafless plant. This effect also makes the rare orchid even harder to find, especially outside the brief, unpredictable window when it blooms in summer.

Unfortunately, the ghost orchid is also at risk of living up to its name in another way. It's an endangered species, limited to scattered populations in Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida, where it exists in just three southwestern counties.

It inhabits remote swamp forests and small wooded islands, yet still faces an array of threats from humans, namely poaching, climate change, loss of pollinators, and loss of habitat.

The species has long enchanted anyone lucky enough to see it, and we're still learning its secrets—including new research that challenges what we thought we knew about its pollinators.

In honor of the ghost orchid's haunting mystique, and of scientists' quest to save it, here's a closer look at this unique floral phantom.

1. It only blooms once a year for a few weeks—or not at all

The ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ) blooms between June and August, typically just once per year for a period of about one or two weeks. Or it might just take the year off. As few as 10% of ghost orchids may bloom in a given year, and of those, as few as 10% may be pollinated.

2. It has scales instead of leaves

The ghost orchid is what's known as a "leafless" orchid, since its leaves have been reduced to scales and mature plants seem to lack foliage.

It also has a reduced stem, which is often hard to see even if you somehow find a ghost orchid in the wild.

3. It's mostly made of roots

In lieu of leaves and a stem, the ghost orchid plant consists mostly of roots, which grow on a tree's bark without need for the soil below. That's because the ghost orchid is an epiphyte , a term for plants that grow not in soil, but on trees and other hosts sort of like a parasite.

Unlike parasites, epiphytes don't take nutrients from their hosts and don't necessarily cause any trouble for them. They tend to grow on the main trunk or large boughs of a living tree, often several feet off the ground, although they can be located much higher up in the canopy.

4. Its roots act like leaves

Doug Goldman / USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The ghost orchid may not have leaves to speak of, but that doesn't mean it has given up on photosynthesis. Although its roots already have their hands full—they anchor the orchid onto its tree, while also taking in water and nutrients—they fill this role, too.

The roots contain the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis, rendering leaves unnecessary. The roots also feature small white marks known as pneumatodes, which perform the gas exchange needed for respiration and photosynthesis.

When the orchid isn't in bloom, the mass of roots looks like "unremarkable bits of green linguine," as National Geographic described them.

5. Its flowers look like they're floating in the forest

Josh O'Connor / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The greenish roots blend in with the bark of trees where ghost orchids grow, making them well-camouflaged when they aren't blooming, especially in the dimly lit understory.

During the brief window when they do bloom, the flower grows on a thin spike extending outward from the roots. The roots act like a puppeteer dressed to match the background, dangling the flower as if it's floating freely in the forest.

Although ghost orchid is undoubtedly its coolest name, the plant is also known as "palm polly" or the "white frog orchid," a reference to the pair of long, lateral tendrils from its lower petal that vaguely resemble the hind legs of a frog.

6. It smells kind of like apples, especially in the morning

At an undisclosed location in South Florida, about 13 ghost orchids abruptly bloomed in the summer of 2009, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study the species in the wild. That included a team of researchers who investigated the orchid's "floral headspace," using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to identify volatile compounds in the flower's scent.

They identified several organic chemicals known as terpenoids, the most abundant of which was (E,E)-α-farnesene, a compound found in the natural coating of apples, pears, and other fruits.

From about 5 centimeters (2 inches) away, "the floral scent of D. lindenii was readily detectable to the authors," they reported in the European Journal of Environmental Sciences, "and seemed to intensify at sunset." The fragrance was most potent in the early morning, they added, between 1 and 6 a.m. local time. "The scent can best be described as sweet-smelling and somewhat fruity," they wrote.

7. It was long thought to rely on just one moth for pollination

Politikaner / Wikimedia Commons

The ghost orchid's pollen is hidden deep within its flowers, and so it can only be pollinated by an insect with a proboscis long enough to reach all the way inside.

For ghost orchids, the long-tongued pollinator was long ago identified as the giant sphinx moth, which is native to South and Central America but relatively rare in North America, with only occasional sightings in Florida and a few other southern U.S. states.

It's widely described as the sole pollinator of ghost orchids, thanks to its long proboscis and a lack of evidence for any other pollinators. Its larvae feed on the pond apple tree, which is also an important host for ghost orchids.

8. Its pollination might not be as simple as we thought

Charles J. Sharp / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite conventional wisdom about the ghost orchid's reliance on giant sphinx moths, photos taken in Florida suggest the reality is more complicated.

Wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. set up a camera trap in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, located just northwest of Big Cypress National Preserve , and caught images of five different moth species visiting ghost orchids. As National Geographic reports , two of these moths—the fig sphinx and pawpaw sphinx—had ghost orchid pollen on their heads.

This was later backed up by another photographer, Mac Stone, who captured images of a fig sphinx moth visiting a ghost orchid with the plant's pollen on its head. Both photographers also got photos of giant sphinx moths visiting ghost orchids, but none were carrying ghost-orchid pollen, raising the possibility that giant sphinx tongues are long enough to "steal" nectar from ghost orchids without actually pollinating them. These findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

If the ghost orchid really does have multiple pollinators—with or without the giant sphinx—it would be welcome news, since it would mean the orchid's reproduction doesn't depend entirely on one rare insect. And that may be especially valuable now, given the threat of pesticides and other factors fueling the widespread decline of insects around the world, including many important pollinators.

9. Its habitats are becoming more hazardous

In Florida, ghost orchids tend to grow on just three tree species—pop ash, pond apple, and bald cypress—but in Cuba, they've been found growing on at least 18 different host trees.

"Although populations of D. lindenii in southern Florida and Cuba are separated by only 600 km, this species appears to occupy two different habitats and colonizes a different set of host trees," researchers noted in a study published in Botanical Journal.

Ghost orchids in Florida also grow slightly higher off the ground than in Cuba, the authors noted, possibly because stagnant water prevents seedlings from growing on submerged tree surfaces during South Florida's rainy season.

In both countries, however, the ghost orchid's habitats "are undergoing rapid, irreversible change imposed by climate change and other factors," the researchers added. "Both regions, for example, are vulnerable to sea-level rise this century given their low elevation, and the severity and frequency of tropical cyclone activity is another concern."

Ghost orchids have already experienced a steady decline in the wild, and based on simulations of habitat changes, "hurricanes and similar disturbances could result in near-certain extinction in short time horizons," researchers reported in 2015, possibly within a period of 25 years.

The orchid faces another obstacle from encroaching human development, which is prompting changes in the water table and the fire cycle, according to a report published in the journal Wetland Science & Practice.

Yet another threat comes from the emerald ash borer , an invasive insect that kills ash trees. It hasn't reached Florida yet, but if it infects mature stands of pop ash trees in places like Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge —where 69% of all ghost orchids grow on pop ash—it could have a devastating effect on the species.

10. It has a problem with poachers, too

Along with its general rarity and remote, inhospitable habitat, the ghost orchid's camouflage makes it incredibly hard to find in the wild. That doesn't stop some people from trying, though, and not always for good reasons.

An estimated 2,000 ghost orchids live in the wild across South Florida, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), although a recent survey suggests there might be more.

While researchers want to know where those orchids are, the locations are often kept secret due to the threat of poachers, who may be willing to risk their lives in search of wild ghost orchids.

Although the rare plants may command a high price on the black market, this is stupid even beyond the obvious legal, ethical, and ecological reasons. Ghost orchids rarely survive removal from the wild.

11. It's very hard to cultivate, but one fungus seems to help

The ghost orchid not only tends to die when removed from its natural habitat, but it's also famously ill-suited to captivity in general.

Botanists long struggled to cultivate the orchid, hoping to create a population of captive-bred plants that could be periodically transplanted to help buffer their wild counterparts.

Although the ghost orchid has seemed impossible to cultivate, researchers have made some breakthroughs in recent years. Michael Kane, a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, has been working with a team of researchers to bring ghost orchid seeds from the wild to a propagation lab, where they try to germinate the seeds under sterile conditions on a gelled medium and then transfer the plants into a greenhouse.

The key is not only recreating precise conditions that ghost orchids need to thrive, but also providing them with the right fungus. Ghost orchid seeds won't germinate unless they're infected with a specific mycorrhizal fungus, which provides energy for the germination and then grows on the plant's roots as part of a symbiotic relationship.

In the wild, ghost orchids seem to colonize trees with moist, corrugated bark that harbors fungi in the genus Ceratobasidium, and researchers have identified certain fungal strains that lead to higher germination rates.

Kane and his team have been so successful in cultivating ghost orchids that they've also begun reintroducing them to the wild. The researchers planted 80 orchids in the wild in 2015, achieving an 80% survival rate a year later, then followed up with 160 more orchids in 2016.

This alone may not save the species, especially if its habitats remain in danger, but it's still a big step toward preserving these incredible ghosts.

" An Obsessive Quest To Photograph Florida's Ghost Orchid Pollinators ."  Earth Touch News Network .

Sadler, James J. et al. " Fragrance Composition Of Dendrophylax Lindenii (Orchidaceae) Using A Novel Technique Applied In Situ ."  European Journal of Environmental Sciences , vol 1, no. 2, 2012, pp. 137-141, doi:10.14712/23361964.2015.56

Houlihan, P.R., Stone, M., Clem, S.E.  et al.  " Pollination ecology of the ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ): A first description with new hypotheses for Darwin’s orchids ."  Scientific Reports, vol. 9, 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-49387-4

Mújica, Ernesto B et al. " A Comparision Of Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax Lindenii) Habitats In Florida And Cuba, With Particular Reference To Seedling Recruitment And Mycorrhizal Fungi ."  Botanical Journal Of The Linnean Society , vol 186, no. 4, 2018, pp. 572-586, doi:10.1093/botlinnean/box106

Raventós, José et al . " Population Viability Analysis Of The Epiphytic Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax Lindenii) In Cuba ."  Biotropica , vol 47, no. 2, 2015, pp. 179-189, doi:10.1111/btp.12202

Clem, Shawn, and Michael Duever. " Hydrologic Changes Over 60 Years (1959-2019) In An Old-Growth Bald Cypress Swamp On A Rapidly Developing Landscape ."  Wetland Science & Practice , vol 36, no. 4, 2019, pp. 362-372.

Nguyen H. Hoang, et al. " Comparative seed germination and seedling development of the ghost orchid,  Dendrophylax lindenii  (Orchidaceae), and molecular identification of its mycorrhizal fungus from South Florida ."  Annals of Botany , vol. 119, 2017, pp. 379–393, doi:10.1093/aob/mcw220

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Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce

Incredible photos show multiple species pollinate the rare and enigmatic flower, which is good news for the endangered species..

Moths pollinating rare ghost orchids.

Deep in remote Florida swamps, a team of researchers and photographers have made a new discovery that upends what we thought we knew about the ghost orchid, one of the world’s most iconic flowers, and how it reproduces.

These rare, charming orchids were long thought to be pollinated by a single insect: the giant sphinx moth. This massive creature sounds like a miniature jet as it zooms through the swamp with a six-inch wingspan, says conservation scientist Peter Houlihan .

The Everglades wetlands were once dominated by large cypress trees, home to epiphytes and orchids, like ...

But now, photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. and Mac Stone show that a couple of moth species other than the giant sphinx visit and carry the ghost orchid ’s pollen—and the giant sphinx itself may play a completely different role than previously thought.

These results provide insight into the plant’s virtually unknown reproductive biology, and they suggest that conserving the endangered species may be less difficult than assumed, since it’s not dependent on only one pollinator, says Houlihan, who collaborated with Ward and Stone to make the discovery. The findings also show the ghost orchids can be important food sources for moths.

“It’s very good news,” Stone says.

Ghost orchids are found in Florida and Cuba, and there are only about 2,000 ghost orchids in the state. As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.

They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.

Orchid fever

On a recent summer day in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge , home to a quarter of the state’s ghosts, I spent many hours searching for one in bloom with Ward and refuge biologist Mark Danaher. We hiked through knee-deep water the colour of sweet tea from early morning until afternoon, marveling at the abundance of diversity of air plants and orchids. When we finally found a ghost, it was really magic.

The plant’s bright white, delicate flowers seem to hover above its stems, and the modified petals have long, curly legs that flutter in the breeze. In the centre of the flower is the entrance to a tube called a nectar spur, which contains sweet secretions. Ideally, the nectar will attract a moth, which will elongate its tongue-like proboscis and stick its head into the tube. If all goes well, the moth will contact the plant’s bundle of pollen, called a pollinium, which will stick to its head, and hopefully be carried on to fertilize another ghost .

These orchids have long nectar spurs, stretching five inches or more in length, though this varies. Given the size of the tube, it has long been thought that only the giant sphinx moths would be capable of reaching the nectar.

But when Ward set up several remote camera traps in this wildlife refuge, he documented five species of moths visiting these ghost orchids. Two of these species, fig sphinx ( Pachylia ficus ) and rustic sphinx ( Manduca rustica ), had ghost orchid pollinia on their heads.

Stone and Houlihan worked out of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary , one of the world’s largest old-growth cypress forests, a 45-minute drive to the northwest.

The sanctuary, owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, has set up a scope for visitors to see a massive ghost orchid, known as the “super ghost.” This flower sits 50 feet up on a cypress, and it’s the only ghost that is relatively easy to see. The orchid currently has eight flowers, “which is just insane,” Stone says—most plants put out only one flower at a time.

In 2018, Stone (assisted by Houlihan) spent countless hours setting up a camera on this orchid, tree-climbing and tinkering.

Biologist Peter Houlihan sets up a light trap 90-feet in a cypress tree. Attracted to different ...

Stone, who lives in South Carolina, says that during the height of the work last summer, he’d often lay awake at night thinking about how to perfect the shots. “I’d book a last-minute flight and then just move my camera an inch,” he says. “It was just madness.”

All experienced a bit of orchid fever. “I do think it’s possible that orchids drive people crazy,” Ward says: The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours.

But all this work paid off. In August Mac captured photos of a fig sphinx visiting the flower with ghost orchid pollinia on its head, complementing Ward’s pictures of the same in the panther refuge. Results from the collaborators have been submitted but have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Both photographers also revealed giant sphinxes visiting the ghosts—but the insects weren't carrying any pollinia. In one shot by Stone, the moth can clearly by seen drinking nectar, but its head is not nearly close enough to the flower to pick up the pollinium.

This led to a wild hypothesis: Perhaps the giant sphinxes steal nectar from the ghost orchids without pollinating them, Houlihan says. His research also turned up a dozen local hawkmoth species (including Pachylia ficus and Manduca rustica ) that have tongues that are long enough to theoretically sup the orchid’s sugar.

“There are probably lots of moths that can pollinate these flowers,” he says.

Blame Darwin

There are many flower species that are pollinated by a single moth or butterfly.

Most famously, in 1862, Darwin examined a Madagascar orchid now named after him (Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale ) that has a foot-long nectar tube. He was somewhat exasperated, as he hadn’t heard of any moth with a 12-inch tongue. “Good heavens,” he wrote, “what insect can suck it?” He hypothesised that there must be an insect in the area with just such a proboscis.

He was proven right 130 years later, when Morgan’s sphinx moth ( Xanthopan morganii ) was seen feeding from the orchid with its huge tongue. Houlihan’s studies of this moth, funded by the National Geographic Society, helped lead to his work on ghost orchids.

This example may have rubbed off on people’s thinking about the ghost orchid, says Larry Zettler , an orchid expert at Illinois College. “Everyone assumed the same kind of thing would happen with the ghost orchid, because you don’t have this massive nectar spur for no reason,” he says.

But having multiple pollinators, which apparently isn’t the case for Darwin’s orchid, will help to provide more opportunities for the ghost orchid to successfully reproduce.

“It’s good to have redundancy in ecosystems,” says Mike Owen, a biologist at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve , where he and his colleagues have discovered 450 ghost orchids since 1993.

Orchid thieves

Two months after Owen started his job, horticulturist John Laroche, along with two members of the Seminole tribe, were stopped while attempting to remove dozens of valuable air plants and orchids from the preserve. This haul including three ghost orchids—a story told, along with the giant-sphinx-only pollination theory, in Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief and the film based on it, Adaptation .

Since that time, the reserve has introduced various measures to reduce poaching, such as installing camera traps. The same is true in the panther refuge, Danaher says, where more than 40 cameras have been installed to catch photos of wildlife and would-be poachers.

Poaching is not only illegal, but a terrible idea, because ghost orchids invariably die after being moved even slightly, Owen says. They require very specific micro-environments, which is why they thrive in Florida’s swamps, where flowing water slowly passes through, moderating temperatures and humidity. Fakahatchee Strand, a channel of low-lying, oft-flooded strand forest has the highest diversity of air plants and orchids in the continental U.S.

Development in South Florida has severely altered water flows that are so vital to the ecosystem and the orchids, but the importance of this untrammeled flow is being increasingly recognized.

The importance of old-growth

It’s also crucial to conserve remaining old-growth forests, which are home to ghosts and many other rare plants and animals, says Shawn Clem , research director for the sanctuary.

A lake in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, where ghost orchid pollination was documented by ...

The super ghost itself shows people that the flower is not an abstract concept—but a very real plant that depends on a healthy flow of water to survive, she says. The new discovery about the ghosts’ pollinators “speaks to the need for conserving places like Corkscrew so that we can continue to understand the complex ecology of the region,” Clem adds.

Cypress trees once covered much or most of southwestern Florida, and Corkscrew offers a glimpse of how the land once appeared. Many trees reach to heights of around a hundred feet, and some of them are about 600 years old.

The super ghost is by far the highest situated of its species, and one of only few known to occur in cypress trees. But Houlihan and Stone think that, once, it was probably a common scenario—and these highly perched plants were likely incredibly important for seeding the understory below.

“This is just one reason why these old-growth forests are so important,” Stone says.

The plants produce hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds, which are distributed by air currents, and as you can imagine, it’s easier for seeds to drift downward from a high spot than to be lifted upward.

When the seeds land in a choice spot, they must also come into contact with the right kind of fungus. This is the case for all orchids, and many of them require an individual species. Zettler recently discovered that ghost orchids can only germinate in the presence of one species, in the genus Ceratobasidium .

That being said, Mike Kane , a horticulturist at the University of Florida, has figured out how to cultivate ghost orchids in the lab. That discovery has already helped to increase the supply of plants, some of which have been replanted to the wild, in places like the panther refuge.

There, and in the Fakahatchee and Big Cypress National Preserve, the ghost orchids are primarily found in pop ash trees, followed by pond apples. These trees are much shorter than cypresses, and many of the ghost orchids there are only a few feet off the ground.

When I finally saw my first such bloom, chest-high, with lip-like petals and a striking bright white colour, I began to see how orchids hold such strange power over people. Ward is a good example.

After seeing his first flowering ghost in July 2012, in the Fakahatchee preserve, he returned for three days in a row to get the right shot—and has been photographing them ever since.

“The ghost orchid motivated me to explore these swamps,” Ward says, “and I hope its story can inspire others to protect the places where it lives.”

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Facts About The Ghost Orchid

Ghost Orchid

Ghost orchid is a perennial orchid that is an epiphyte in nature. Lindenii in its scientific name is actually a name of a famous botanist from Belgium. This orchid was identified by Jean Jules Linden in 1844 in Cuba. It is a unique plant in the sense that there are no leaves and what one gets to see is only a thin network of roots wrapped around the branches of the host tree. These roots produce spikes that grow and bear flowers. The reason why this orchid is referred to as Ghost orchid is because of the fact that its flowers appear to be suspended in air like a ghost.

Facts about the Ghost Orchid

  • Habitat: Cuba, Bahamas, and Florida
  • Scientific name: Dendrophylax lindenii
  • Other common names: Ghost orchid, white frog orchid, palm polly

It is a rare species of orchids because it is very difficult to cultivate in home conditions. It loves its natural habitat that includes marshes and swamps where there are a lot of damp and humid conditions. It is difficult to identify this orchid even in its natural habitat because their roots grow on the branches of trees. The roots perform the functions of photosynthesis and they also help to absorb moisture for the plant. These roots have different shades like grey, green and white and they blend well with the color of the bark of the tree on which they grow. As these plants have no leaves and bloom for a short time period (3 weeks during April and August), it is easy to overlook them even in their natural habitat. One ingenious method to identify this orchid in its natural habitat is through the smell of this plant. Ghost orchid produces soap like smell when it is blooming.

If you take a look at the flowers of this orchid, you see either a white frog flying in the air or a ghost floating in air from here and there. This could be quite intimidating for anyone moving in the natural habitat of this orchid in Everglades or a forest in Cuba. As far as structure of the flowers is concerned, it has three sepals and three white petals. What is surprising is that Ghost orchid produces only one flower at a time. However, there have been plants that produced up to 10 flowers at the same time. After maturing, Ghost orchid plant can go without flowering for many years.

The flowers of Ghost orchid bloom are seen blooming between May and August every year. The flowers can grow up to a size of 4-5 inches. These flowers last up to a period of 14 days. The pollens are secured deep inside the flower that are accessed only a by a giant moth with large antennae. Pollination can be done by hand by using cotton swabs and then inserting these swabs into the flowers of the female ghost orchid plant.

It is very difficult to grow Ghost orchids in home conditions as you need to recreate conditions of very high humidity and high temperatures. This plant needs diffused light conditions and also frequent misting to grow. This is the reason why ghost orchids have been grown inside greenhouses only.

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The Ghost Orchid: one of Britain's rarest plants

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

Distribution map of Ghost Orchids in Britain (all records: data courtesy of Botanical Society of the British Isles 2013).

Eleanor Vachell, c. 1930.

Eleanor Vachell, c. 1930.

A 1953 Ghost Orchid collected by Rex Graham

A 1953 Ghost Orchid collected by Rex Graham

The 1982 Herefordshire Ghost Orchid preserved in formalin

The 1982 Herefordshire Ghost Orchid preserved in formalin

The Welsh National Herbarium at Amguedfa Cymru has a small - but very precious - collection of Ghost Orchids ( Epipogium aphyllum Sw.); is this something to be proud of, or should they have been left in the wild? The answer lies in the donations to the Museum, and slugs...

Ghost Orchids are among the rarest plants in Britain. They have been found in about 11 sites in the Chilterns and West Midlands in England, but such is their rarity and the secrecy surrounding them that it is difficult to be sure exactly how many sites there are.

Regarded as extinct

Ghost Orchids were first discovered in Britain in 1854 but were only seen 11 times before the 1950s. They were seen regularly in a few Chilterns sites between 1953 and 1987 but then disappeared and were regarded as extinct until one plant was discovered in 2009. In most sites they have only been seen once, and rarely for more than ten years in any one site.

Ghost orchids - a fleeting occurrence in dark, shaded woods

Ghost Orchids get their name from their creamy-white to pinkish-brown colour and their fleeting occurrences in dark, shaded woods. The colour results from the absence of chlorophyll, as they are parasites of fungi associated with tree roots, and they do not need to photosynthesise their own food. They spend most of their lives as rhizomes (underground shoots) in the soil or leaf litter of woodlands, and flowering shoots only occasionally appear above ground. Even then, their small size (usually less than 15cm, rarely up to 23cm) and unpredictable appearance between June and October means that Ghost Orchids are rarely seen.

Until recently the only British specimen held by Amgueddfa Cymru was a scrap of rhizome collected for Eleanor Vachell in 1926 - her herbarium is one of the most comprehensive ever put together by a British botanist - who donated her collection to the Museum when she died in 1949. The story of how the fragment of Ghost Orchid was discovered is given in her botanical diary:

" 28 May 1926 . The telephone bell summoned Mr [Francis] Druce to receive a message from Mr Wilmott of the British Museum. Epipogium aphyllum had been found in Oxfordshire by a young girl and had been shown to Dr [George Claridge] Druce and Mrs Wedgwood. Now Mr Wilmott had found out the name of the wood and was ready to give all information!!! Excitement knew no bounds. Mr Druce rang up Elsie Knowling inviting her to join the search and a taxi was hurriedly summoned to take E.V. [=Eleanor Vachell] and Mr Druce to the British Museum to collect the particulars from Mr Wilmott. The little party walked to the wood where the single specimen had been found and searched diligently that part of the wood marked in the map lent by Mr Wilmott but without success, though they spread out widely in both directions... Completely baffled, the trio, at E.V.'s suggestion, returned to the town to search for the finder. After many enquiries had been made they were directed to a nice house, the home of Mrs I. ?, who was fortunately in when they called. E.V. acted spokesman. Mrs I. was most kind and after giving them a small sketch of the flower told them the name of the street where the girl who had found it lived. Off they started once more. The girl too was at home and there in a vase was another flower of Epipogium ! In vain did Mr Druce plead with her to part with it but she was adamant! Before long however she had promised to show the place to which she had lead Dr Druce and Mrs Wedgwood and from which the two specimens had been gathered. Off again. This time straight to the right place, but there was nothing to be seen of Epipogium ! 2 June 1926 . A day to spare! Why not have one more hunt for Epipogium ? Arriving at the wood, E.V. crept stealthily to the exact spot from which the specimen had been taken and kneeling down carefully, with their fingers they removed a little soil, exposing the stem of the orchid, to which were attached tiny tuberous rootlets! Undoubtedly the stem of Dr Druce's specimen! Making careful measurements for Mr Druce, they replaced the earth, covered the tiny hole with twigs and leaf-mould and fled home triumphant, possessed of a secret that they were forbidden to share with anyone except Mr Druce and Mr Wilmott. A few days later E.V. received from Mr Druce an excited letter of thanks and a box of earth containing a tiny rootlet that he had found in the exact spot they had indicated." [Source: Forty, M. & Rich, T. C. G., eds. (2006). The botanist. The botanical diary of Eleanor Vachell (1879-1948). National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.]

Eleanor shared the rootlet with her great friend Elsie Knowling, who also had a herbarium. Coincidentally, the two fragments have been reunited at the Museum after being apart for 84 years.

In 1953, Elsie's son Rex Graham stumbled across 22 Ghost Orchids in a Buckinghamshire wood, the largest colony of ever seen in Britain (Graham 1953). This was the first time that Ghost Orchids had been seen for 20 years and it made the national press. At the time Rex collected only three specimens, but over the next few years he collected more when they were found eaten off by slugs. Eventually Rex had four specimens for his own herbarium, to add to the scrap in his mother's herbarium. The Ghost Orchids were amongst the treasures in Graham & Harley herbarium, which was donated to Amgueddfa Cymru in 2010.

The third collection is the Museum's only specimen preserved in spirit (rather than being pressed and dried) so that the three dimensional structure of the flower can be seen. Dr Valerie Richards (formerly Coombs) was looking for wild orchids in Herefordshire in 1982 when she discovered a single ghost orchid in a new site. When she took a local botanist to the site a few days later, a slug had eaten through the stem. She picked it up and took it home and preserved it in formalin like the zoological specimens she had been used to working with during her university days. The specimen was kindly donated to the Museum in 2013.

The fourth and final collection resulted from the hard work and intuition of Mark Jannink combined with another hungry slug. Mark wondered if Ghost Orchids flowered more frequently after cold winters. He researched all previous Ghost Orchid discoveries - their preferred habitat, time of flowering and weather patterns - then staked out ten possible sites in the West Midlands, visiting them every two weeks throughout the summer of 2009, following the first cold winter for many years. Finally in September, he discovered one small specimen - causing great excitement amongst botanists, as the Ghost Orchid had been declared officially extinct in 2005! Mark returned several times over the next few days as the plant gradually faded and 'browned', until the stem was once again eaten through by slugs. The remains were collected and pressed, and donated to our herbarium shortly after.

So five of the seven British Ghost Orchids in Amgueddfa Cymru have been collected as a consequence of slugs, which are more of a threat than botanists. The Ghost Orchids are fully protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but nobody seems to have told that to the slugs!

We also have eight specimens from Europe, where Ghost Orchids are more widespread, though still rare. One of our best specimens was collected by W. A. Sledge in Switzerland.

You are welcome to visit the Welsh National Herbarium to see the Ghost Orchids, but don't expected us to reveal where they were found! And please leave your slugs at home.

Adapted for the website from the following article:

are ghost orchids real

The scrap of Ghost Orchid rootlet in Eleanor Vachell's herbarium. Also attached to the specimen are Dr George Claridge Druce's (1924) account of it from Gardeners Chronicle series 3 volume 76, page 114 and two small sketches by Miss Baumgartner.

Swiss Ghost Orchids collected by W. A. Sledge in 1955.

Swiss Ghost Orchids collected by W. A. Sledge in 1955.

The 2009 Ghost Orchid from Herefordshire.

The 2009 Ghost Orchid from Herefordshire.

  • Graham, R. A. (1953). Epipogium aphyllum Sw. in Buckinghamshire. Watsonia 3: 33 and tab. (http://archive.bsbi.org.uk/Wats3p33.pdf ).
  • Harley, R. M. (1962). Obituary: Rex Alan Henry Graham. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles 4: 505-507.

For further information on Ghost Orchids see:

  • Farrell, L. (1999) Epipogium aphyllum Sw. page 136 in Wigginton, M. J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1. Vascular plants . 3rd edition. JNCC, Peterborough.
  • Foley, M. J. Y. & Clark, S. (2005) Orchids of the British Isles. The Griffin Press, Maidenhead.
  • Jannink, M. & Rich, T. C. G. (2010). Ghost orchid rediscovered in Britain after 23 years. Journal of the Hardy Orchid Society 7: 14-15.
  • Taylor, L. & Roberts, D. L. (2011). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Epipogium aphyllum Sw. Journal of Ecology 99 : 878–890. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2745.2011.01839.x/abstract:

Comments - (1)

Most interesting. Please keep up the good work. Kind regards.

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

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Searching for the Ghost Orchids of the Everglades

Clinging to survival in shrinking swamps, ghost orchids are so elusive that their pollinators have remained unknown—until now..

Giant Sphinx Moth Pollinating

Admittedly, there are few circumstances in which a swamp buggy feels like the best choice of vehicle, but on this particular excursion to see one of the rarest orchids on the planet, our monster-truck-sized tires seem comically out of place. Trundling along a dusty, double-track road, we pass through open meadows and airy stands of slash pine ( Pinus elliottii ) and saw palmetto ( Serenoa repens ). The faint breeze the vehicle stirs up is so hot and dry, I half expect the straw-yellow grasses along our route to burst into flame.

With every few hundred feet of forward progress, though, we drop an imperceptible inch or two in elevation, moving from the relative highlands of the pine flatwoods toward what some here call “the Grand Canyon of the Everglades:” the Fakahatchee Strand. This 38-kilometer-long (24-mile) stretch of densely forested wetland is one of the lowest points in Florida—albeit by only a few feet—and, as a result, carries much of the fresh water that flows in a slow, meandering path from swamps up north to the state’s southern tip. At least it used to.

To its proponents, for whom the word “swamp” is no more a pejorative than forest or meadow, the Fakahatchee Strand is not simply a conduit—or, worse, land that is valuable only if drained and developed. It’s a special place, home not just to panthers and bears and river otters, but also to one of the rarest and most famous plants in the world: the ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ). The Fakahatchee is also largely unknown and underappreciated by people in this state and beyond, says photographer Carlton Ward Jr., 43, an eighth-generation Floridian who has made this trek dozens of times in his efforts to document and share the rich biological diversity here. “This is truly the wild heart of the Everglades,” he says, “as wild and inaccessible as you get in the state of Florida.”

Wild as it may be, the Fakahatchee Strand is an ecosystem with a long history of degradation, and one that faces persistent threats. Several of its native species, including the Florida panther ( Puma concolor coryi ) and ghost orchid, are endangered and clinging to survival in a tiny fraction of the space they once inhabited—space that’s becoming increasingly cut off from other such remnants

With Ward on a bench seat in the back and me riding shotgun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mark Danaher pilots the swamp buggy toward the deep-green, deciduous tangle ahead. As he drives, he describes some of the many insults that ecosystems here in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge incurred before the land was placed under federal protection in 1989. Most notable was the “cypress era” in the 1950s and 60s, which saw nearly every old-growth cypress tree in the region cut down and removed. Then there was the construction of roads and canals that, to this day, divert and syphon water away from the swamp.

Danaher and other refuge personnel are charged with protecting the native species that remain here, and, to the extent possible, restoring ecosystems to their historical conditions. In other habitats, that might involve prescribed burns, removal of invasive species, and translocating rare, native animals back onto the landscape. Protecting and restoring the refuge’s swampland is different—simpler in some ways, far more complicated and political in others. “It requires very little hands-on management,” Danaher says. “It doesn’t require fire. We don’t have exotic, invasive plant species to contend with. What it needs is good-quality, fresh water flowing through it.”

But in Florida, where population growth, development, and habitat fragmentation have been the norm for decades, there’s no guarantee that even the reduced flow will continue. Land, even swampland, is a precious commodity in a state that has welcomed on average nearly 900 new residents per day for the past 10 years. And draining swamps is seen as a necessary step by government officials and developers keen to build roads and subdivisions to accommodate all those newcomers.

“That’s why we have to connect the people with the landscape, to ensure that these lands forever stay the best example of true, wild Florida,” Danaher says. And that is precisely what Ward has spent years attempting to do with his photography.

At a bend in the road that turns toward the swamp, Danaher pulls the vehicle off into the weeds and cuts the engine. The three of us climb down onto parched ground, and Ward says with a hint of apology or apprehension, “I’ve never seen it this dry.”

Granted, it’s May and the torrential afternoon rains of summer are due to begin any day, but the observation still sounds ominous coming from someone who knows the swamp so well. Ward has been wading into the Strand’s tannic waters for years, often on a weekly basis, to photograph the ecosystem’s inhabitants and its changing conditions from season to season. Today, we trudge off over ground littered with dry twigs where, on nearly any other visit, Ward would be skimming over the swamp’s surface on a paddleboard.

What brought the photographer to the refuge in earnest three years ago was a grant from the National Geographic Foundation to document some of the 200 remaining Florida panthers. It wasn’t long, though, before another, even more elusive, target—one that Ward now calls “the ultimate distraction”—began to occupy his time: the quest to capture an image of the pollinator of the ghost orchid. Long suspected but never confirmed, the identity of the orchid’s pollinator was an unanswered scientific question, and some thought that photographic evidence might help to conserve the endangered plant.

Standing at last in calf-deep water at the base of a pop ash tree ( Fraxinus caroliniana ), Danaher muses about the passion people have for orchids in general and ghost orchids in particular—passion made famous by the 1998 book  The Orchid Thief  and the movie  Adaptation . Even though he relates to the obsession, the 44-year-old Florida transplant still finds its reach to be surprising. “For god’s sake, they put pictures of ghost orchid flowers on U-haul trucks now,” he marvels.

As he talks, I’m struck by the plant clinging to the tree trunk in front of me. I’m mesmerized not by the orchid’s famed beauty and ethereal qualities, but by its near lifeless appearance. Excited as I am to be standing in the Fakahatchee, gazing at a wild ghost orchid, the truth is, when the plants aren’t in bloom, they’re not much to look at. Which makes it that much more intriguing that Ward, Danaher, and others have placed the ghost orchid alongside the panther as an iconic representative of the swamp—a species with the potential to protect an entire ecosystem.

Orchid obsession is, of course, nothing new. The Chinese were cultivating the plants thousands of years ago and publishing books on their care as early as the 13th century. By the mid-1800s, orchid collecting was all the rage in Victorian England, first among wealthy aristocrats—who sent orchid hunters off to the furthest reaches of the planet to gather all they could find—and later among the middle class. Ultimately, the craze would spread to nearly every corner of the world, driving what, today, has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Perhaps the most universally celebrated quality of orchids is their astounding diversity of form. Poets, painters, and scientists have all extolled the virtues of that variation, much as Polish naturalist Jakob Breyne did in 1678: “If nature ever showed her playfulness in the formation of plants, this is visible in the most striking way among the orchids,” he wrote. “They take on the form of little birds, of lizards, of insects. They look like a man, like a woman, sometimes like an austere, sinister fighter, sometimes like a clown who excites our laughter.”

Amidst this staggering diversity in a sea of nearly 30,000 orchid species, many specialty collectors seek one quality above all: novelty. For elite orchid lovers, the stranger or rarer a plant is, or the harder it is to cultivate, the more valuable it becomes. The desire to possess what no one else can, has, unfortunately, driven an illicit trade in rare, wild orchids, with tens of thousands of plants traded illegally each year. Individual orchids have sold for as much as $150,000. This demand has placed hundreds of rare species, including the ghost orchid, under tremendous pressure. Aside from habitat loss and degradation, poaching poses one of the greatest threats to ghost orchid survival, and today, only 2,000 to 2,500 wild individuals remain in the United States, with a separate, possibly genetically distinct, small population in Cuba.

Chasing Ghosts

In their quest to identify the pollinator of the ghost orchid for the first time, this team of conservation photographers and scientists spent three summers standing waist-deep in alligator- and snake-laden water, swatting air blackened by mosquitoes, and climbing to sometimes nausea-inducing heights. They came away with an even deeper love for Florida’s wildest wetlands—and with surprising discoveries that may help to conserve both the endangered orchid and its shrinking home.

For scientists, orchids have fueled a different sort of fervor—not a desire to possess, but to understand how the plants’ myriad forms came into being. Despite what early philosophers once thought, or what believers in intelligent design might suggest now, orchid flowers were not shaped by the hand of a divine power. Instead, they arose and diversified under the persistent pressure of natural selection. Each one has its own evolutionary tale to tell, and in nearly every case, sex and the specialized relationships between the plants and their pollinators have played a major role.

One of the best known of these evolutionary stories is that of the star orchid of Madagascar ( Angraecum sesquipedale ). In 1862, three years after he published  On the Origin of Species , Charles Darwin received a package at his home from a British orchid grower. Inside he found a number of plants collected in Madagascar, including one in particular that captured his attention.

As he inspected the strange white orchid with a star-shaped arrangement of fleshy petals, Darwin took note of the flower’s unusually long nectar tube, which measured some 30 centimeters (12 inches) from bloom to tip. Well versed in his own theory of evolution and having seen his fair share of orchids by that time, Darwin began to imagine a potential link between that specialized flower structure and an equally specialized pollinator. He knew, as we know now, that nectar is the reward that plants provide to encourage other organisms to visit and pollinate them. But with the reward hidden so deep within its nectary, the star orchid had created quite the conundrum—for Darwin and any conceivable Malagasy insect.

Although it’s not ranked among his best-known quotes, Darwin ruminated about the star orchid in a letter to a friend, “Good Heavens what insect can suck it?” Then, just days later, he wrote back with an answer to his own question: “… moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches.”

At the time, it was nothing more than a prediction. But then, in 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin’s death, a moth fitting his description was discovered in a rainforest of Madagascar. The insect was quickly dubbed Darwin’s hawkmoth ( Xanthopan morganii praedicta ), in reference to his now-famous prediction. It would be another 85 years, though, before scientists finally had the photographic evidence to prove that the moth does in fact pollinate the star orchid.

Prior to the summer of 2014, photographer Mac Stone hadn’t given ghost orchids much thought. Sure, he knew of the plants. But, as a native Floridian who, like Ward, had devoted much of his career to connecting people to the wild beauty of his state, he had plenty of other fascinating species to photograph.

Stone, 35, grew up in north-central Florida’s college town of Gainesville. As a kid, he pedaled his bicycle to local creeks and hammocks to explore the wild places that few visitors or residents ever encounter. In the beginning, the photographs he took with his father’s old film camera mostly served to verify what he said he had seen on those daily adventures. Before long, though, he began to appreciate the power that photography had to enhance a story—and perhaps, to alter its outcome.

When Stone was just 15 years old, a group of property owners asked if he might be willing to help in their bid to protect a local creek from development. While a city council meeting is about the last place an outdoorsy kid would want to spend an afternoon, Stone gave what he describes now as his very first keynote. In the end, the bid to save the creek was only partially successful, but for Stone, the experience made an indelible impression. “Very early on, I saw the power of photography to change minds,” he says

Since that time, Stone has spent the past two decades showcasing not only Florida’s iconic species, but the unique ecosystems in which they live. That’s what brought him to Big Cypress National Preserve, just across State Road 29 from the Florida Panther Refuge, in June of 2014. At the time, he was working on the last few images he needed to complete a book project about the Everglades. And given the ghost orchid’s notoriety, rarity, and reliance on swamps, it was a shot he desperately wanted.

Ghost orchids aren’t the types of organisms one just stumbles upon, and these days, the whereabouts of known individuals are generally kept secret. But Stone had contacts at the various refuges in South Florida, and after placing a few calls, eventually found himself wading into Big Cypress swamp with photographer Chris Evans, who knew the area inside out.

The orchids they found that day, Stone’s first, didn’t disappoint. They were in full bloom, dancing in the thick, mosquito-filled air above the tea-colored water. As Stone took pictures, he found himself reflecting on the basics of ghost orchid natural history: the pond apple ( Annona glabra ) and pop ash trees the plants prefer as hosts; the fact that they’re generally found in clusters, a result of the way their dust-like seeds scatter in the faint breeze; and the role that water in the swamp plays in moderating the temperature of the microhabitats where cold-sensitive ghost orchids live in the event of rare South Florida freezes.

In addition to what Stone already knew about the orchids, Evans shared two additional pieces of information that day that caught Stone’s attention. He noted that on average only 10 percent of ghost orchid plants bloom in any given year, and that, of those, only 10 percent will be pollinated. Evans went on to say that the orchid has only one known pollinator, the giant sphinx moth ( Cocytius antaeus )—although, he said, pollination by that species or any other had never been verified. While a 2008 video captured by ghost orchid aficionado Chris Little seemed to show a giant sphinx visiting a ghost orchid, scientists had deemed the footage inconclusive, both in terms of the species of the moth and whether or not it had pollinated the orchid.

On one level, Stone was fascinated purely because of the opportunity to solve a longstanding puzzle. But he also knew that learning more about the ghost orchid’s pollinator could be critical to ongoing efforts to conserve it. Among the many reasons that ghost orchids are struggling to survive and reproduce is that—these days, at least—they rarely produce seed pods. Less than 5 percent of the 2,000 or so known ghost orchids in Florida manage to do so.

“We’re seeing extremely sporadic and low levels of seed pod formation,” says Mike Kane, a University of Florida scientist who leads a project to propagate ghost orchids in captivity and, in collaboration with Danaher’s team, reintroduce them to the wild. While the team has had great success growing ghost orchids in their lab, and while more than half of the young orchids they’ve affixed to swamp trees have survived, their transplants can’t reproduce if they don’t make seed pods. “The big issue is probably pollinators. The pollinators have to be there to pollinate, or it’s not going to happen.”

Inspired by the mystery and mesmerized by the rare plant’s seemingly terrible odds of reproducing in the wild, Stone devised a plan. He remembers calling Ward, who had been a mentor and occasional collaborator over the years, to unveil his approach to capturing the first-ever image of the ghost orchid’s pollinator. He would use remotely operated camera traps, he said, and would sleep out in the swamp for as long as it took.

What he didn’t know at the time was that, like so many other great ideas, this one would find its way onto a back burner until inspiration—and another book project—would put the ghost orchid squarely in his sights once again.

It’s no accident that the stories told about ghost orchid pollination sound so similar to the oft-recited tale of the star orchid and Darwin’s hawkmoth. Like their Malagasy counterparts, ghost orchids also have long nectar tubes—about 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) on average—and giant sphinx moths have similarly long tongues. Even so, the confirmation of one specialized relationship does not automatically confirm another a continent away, says tropical ecologist Peter Houlihan, who has studied orchid-pollinator relationships in both Madagascar and South Florida. In Houlihan’s mind, the narrative about Florida’s famous orchid and its pollinator has long been “one of those just-so stories… it sounds nice, and so it is,” he says. But the scientific collections he studied at the Florida Museum of Natural History suggested a more complex story. “It doesn’t take long to realize that there are other hawkmoths in South Florida that have a proboscis length that could pollinate these orchids.” 

To test these ideas, rather than simply debate them, Houlihan went to the best place he knew of to catch ghost orchid pollinators in the act: the Fakahatchee Strand. While his expectations of success might not have been overly high when he first entered the swamp in July of 2014, he did so with a good amount of time on his hands and what must have been uncanny resolve and patience.

The Everglades in midsummer is, by all accounts, an unrelenting environment. Never mind the waist-deep water, alligators, and poisonous snakes, the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes are, in Houlihan’s understated terms, “impressive.” Despite the challenges, which were magnified by his decision to forgo insect repellent (he didn’t want to deter would-be pollinators as they homed in on the orchid’s scent), Houlihan endured. For 23 long nights, he sat atop a ladder, being eaten alive, waiting to trigger a camera trained on an orchid bloom—desperately hoping a pollinator, any pollinator, would appear from out of the darkness. It never happened.

Clearly, a different strategy would be required to catch the ghost orchid’s pollinator in the act, and Ward, like Stone, thought camera traps were the answer. “Scientists were still trying to unravel this mystery,” says Ward, “and I had the tools to help do it.” In 2016, he took some of the camera traps he had originally intended to use on Florida panthers and started training them on ghost orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand. While his camera traps were a dramatic improvement over Houlihan’s ladder-and-patience approach, they weren’t without their own set of challenges. Capturing a small, fast-flying insect in focus is difficult even in the best of circumstances, let alone at night, with no ability to adjust your framing. And other wildlife often made matters worse.

Once, while setting up one of his camera traps, Ward had to throw a water bottle at an alligator that came far too close for comfort. On another occasion, a dense cloud of mosquitoes became a new kind of annoyance. “I had tremendous trouble getting the orchid to stay still enough for a long exposure,” Ward explained, “because the wing beats of the mosquitoes were creating enough wind that the thing was just kind of dancing around.”

But the biggest challenge Ward faced is that orchids bloom so infrequently and unpredictably. In any given year, most ghost orchids never produce a flower, and those that do usually unfurl just one, two, or three blooms in a seductive, but brief, summer display. Ward’s shots on goal were extremely limited, and he was still figuring out how to adjust his camera traps to deal with the specific challenges of photographing a nocturnal moth. It wasn’t until his third summer of tweaking and mosquito-swatting that his unlikely quest to capture the ghost orchid’s pollinator on film began to show any real signs of a potential payoff. “It’s almost embarrassing to think about how many hours I’ve spent going after such a chance,” he reflects.

Not far away, in an Audubon Society reserve called Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the odds of success were actually significantly better. There, a ghost orchid exists that is quite unlike any of Ward’s ephemeral subjects. Affectionately dubbed the “super ghost,” this robust plant, which is likely a cluster of three separate orchids, is renowned in orchid circles around the world. While most ghost orchids cling to gnarled trunks of pond apple and pop ash trees just a few feet above the water’s surface, the super ghost is perched 50 feet up on the side of a stately, old bald cypress tree ( Taxodium distichum ). And while most ghost orchids bloom sporadically, if at all, the super ghost never seems to miss a beat. It has bloomed in every month of the year, although still most heavily during the summer, and has produced as many as 40 flowers in a single year.

In the fall of 2017, Stone was working in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary as part of a new book project on old-growth cypress forests. Hurricane Irma had just hit the area hard, creating a sea of toppled cypress trees covered in epiphytes. “I’m walking around and I’m seeing all of these orchids on canopies that have fallen down, and I started thinking, ‘Well, dang. I should just start climbing some of these,’” says Stone. That’s when he first saw the super ghost up close. Immediately, he dove back into his temporarily shelved goal to photograph the ghost orchid’s pollinator. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to depict how and where ghost orchids might have lived before wide-scale logging decimated the region’s forests.

With its profusion of blooms, Stone believed the super ghost would provide the ideal opportunity to capture pollination in action, and he had plenty of camera trapping experience to bring to the project. He’d just never rigged a camera trap 50 feet in the air before. After doing some initial research, he reached out to Houlihan for advice. Because of his past efforts, Houlihan was intimately familiar with the biology of ghost orchids and their potential pollinators, and he could consult about camera angles and the most likely timing of pollination visits.

Still, it wasn’t easy. “It’s a blessing that there are so many blooms, because it means there are more chemical smells going out, more things to alert potential pollinators that this is in bloom and it has nectar,” says Stone. “But at the same time it’s a curse, because you cannot zero in on something. You cannot say for sure, ‘This bloom will get pollinated, this one has yet to be pollinated.’ You just don’t know.”

For Stone, who now lives in South Carolina, one of the most consuming challenges was the anxiety of setting a camera trap and then walking away, sometimes for days at a time, with no control over what might happen next. “It’s an understatement to say how stressed out I was. I wasn’t sleeping that whole summer,” says Stone. “I’d come home and I would sit there in bed at night and think, ‘Shit, I think I turned the sensor off and I don’t remember turning it back on.’ You know, like you left the iron on or something. But the iron is in another state, and you’re going to lose way more than your house. And so I would book a flight the next day and go unplug my iron.”

Despite the hardships, whether they occurred waist-deep in swamp water or at dizzying heights, all three of them—Houlihan, Ward, and Stone—were determined to stick with it. “There is no easy orchid. There is no easy effort, which is kind of what makes this so exciting,” Stone says now. “For a photographer, the challenge of making the photo is what makes the image and the whole project alluring.”

When Ward paddled into the swamp to check his orchid cameras early last July, he had a pretty good idea what to expect. Camera traps can be triggered by anything from falling raindrops and rustling leaves to buzzing mosquitoes, and that can result in monotonous timelapse sequences of nothing in particular. The ultra-sensitive LIDAR trigger that Ward was using on his ghost orchid traps only made that problem worse.

Balancing atop his paddleboard, Ward settled in as best he could and began to scroll back through the preceding hours and nights, watching as thousands of nearly identical images flashed past the screen on the back of the camera. Then, suddenly, a burst of activity. In back-to-back photos, Ward saw the orchid bounce entirely out of the frame, first down and then up. “I’m like, ‘What in the world is going on?’,” he says. In the next two photos, he sees a little frog, first hanging off of the orchid, and then hunkering down on a leaf below—with a bit of orchid petal in its mouth—after its unsuccessful attempt to catch a spider.

The camera revealed other activity around the orchid that week, too. “You had itty-bitty moths that were just kind of hovering in space. You had medium-sized moths that were actually landing on the flower, but seemingly had no capability to get any nectar.” While these weren’t quite the images Ward was hoping for, they were an inspiring proof of concept that his approach and his equipment were working—and they were beginning to paint a more complete picture of the ghost orchid and, as Ward describes it, “the microcosm that happens around this bloom.

The super ghost was starting to produce results, too. Like Ward, Stone had settled in to the routine of checking his camera, often daily in his case, to tweak angles, change batteries, clear spider webs from his lens, and hope that something, anything, had flown into his camera frame, only to find a sea of monotonous flower portraits.

While there was no reason to expect anything different on that mid-July morning, he was always hopeful on his climbs up to check his trap—“like a kid on Christmas morning,” he says. With Houlihan coming up the tree just a few feet behind, Stone reached the camera, opened the back of the waterproof case, and began scrolling through the images. And there it was, like a figment of his imagination, a huge moth nearly filling the camera frame: the giant sphinx. Though the first image he saw was out of focus, Stone recognized the insect in an instant. “I remember my heart jumping,” he says. He had seen countless pictures of them before, but never on one of his cameras, and never in the proximity of a ghost orchid. Indeed, the image was the first of its kind.

It was a triumphant moment, but Stone and Houlihan quickly began to scrutinize every detail about that photo and the handful of other images the camera had captured during the moth’s second-long visit. Stone couldn’t help critiquing the quality of the photos and thinking about how he might adjust his system to do better. But more importantly, they each looked for clues about how the moth had interacted with the orchid, analyzing every detail and trying to infer meaning from what they did or didn’t see in those brief moments in time.

One thing they noticed is that even while the moth was apparently feeding, with its proboscis deep inside the nectar tube, its head was nowhere near the flower itself. And the orchid’s pollinium, the bright yellow packet of pollen that the flower produces, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the giant sphinx was dusted with a fine, gray powder, most likely the pollen of a moonflower ( Ipomoea alba ), another of the swamp’s bright, white blooms, but far more plentiful. While Houlihan was careful not to make sweeping conclusions based on a few still photos, he says that even these early observations suggested a relationship between the ghost orchid and the giant sphinx that is far less specialized than was once suspected.

The results continued. After so many years of disappointment, especially for Houlihan, it felt like things had finally started to click. Both Stone and Ward were getting steady results. The key frames were still few and far between, gems amidst thousands of discards, but, considering the odds that they all knew so well, it was a veritable flood. More often than not, the large moths flooding in were not the giant sphinx moths many people had long suspected.

All told over the course of the summer, during nearly 7,000 camera-trap hours, Ward and Stone documented visits from five different species of large hawkmoth, two of which clearly carried ghost orchid pollinia. One of these, the fig sphinx moth ( Pachylia ficus ), was practically a regular, showing up at ghost orchids multiple times, both in the Fakahatchee and at Corkscrew, often with ghost orchid pollinia on its head. What’s more, the super ghost and at least two of Ward’s orchids in the Fakahatchee also produced seed pods last summer. “I came back, three or four weeks had passed since those original pictures, and two of the flowers actually had seed pods on them,” Ward says. “We know pollination occurred.”

What Houlihan found to be particularly intriguing about these results is that the fig sphinx has a significantly shorter proboscis than the giant sphinx—just 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) compared to the giant sphinx’s 10.1 centimeters (4 inches). Still, it could clearly pollinate the ghost orchid. And Houlihan has identified more than a dozen other moth species in the region that have probosces at least as long as that found on the fig sphinx. As he and coauthors noted in  a paper published in  Scientific Reports  this year, serving multiple pollinators, rather than catering to a single species, may give the few remaining ghost orchids left in the Everglades a better chance of survival.

As for the moths, their survival is at stake, too. Butterfly and moth diversity and abundance both tend to be relatively low in swamp forests globally, and the Everglades is no exception. Here, only three species of flowering plants are known to be pollinated at night by hawkmoths: the ghost orchid, the moonflower, and the Florida swamp lily ( Crinium americanum ). Given the extreme rarity of the ghost orchid, the other two species are likely important nectar sources for the Everglades’ hawkmoths—meaning that the ghost orchid is dependent not just on its pollinators, but also on healthy populations of these other native plants for its survival

As Houlihan and I discuss the meaning and significance of the team’s results, I’m reminded of my earlier conversation with Mark Danaher, and his hope that the ghost orchid could be a species that saves an entire ecosystem. With these new findings, pointing to interdependencies that are far more complex than scientists previously realized, that possibility feels both more real and more important.

Saving the ghost orchid, this species that captivates admirers around the world, will require more than just propagation and reintroduction efforts. It will require holistic habitat management, including thinking differently about the orchid’s multiple pollinators. “In one of the most rapidly urbanizing states in the nation, people don’t like mosquitoes, and they constantly spray,” says Danaher. “If we don’t keep pollinators in mind, we could lose those critical pollinators that are necessary for ghost orchids to perpetuate themselves.”

It will also require guarding, vigilantly, what little remains of Florida’s wild Everglades. While Ward, Danaher, and I crunched our way through the dry Fakahatchee this spring, Ward received a phone call from a colleague who shared news that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had just approved a new road proposal that would carve three corridors through the state’s undeveloped areas and undermine Everglades restoration efforts. Ward will be fighting it every step of the way. “We’re in the wildest part of the Everglades, where you have this sanctuary of beauty and inspiration and hope, a glimpse of this primordial world the way it used to be,” says Ward. “But the threats to this place are not right here. The threats are around the edges. When the road-planning discussions begin, I want them to know that the world is watching.”

[This story originally appeared on bioGraphic]

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Ghost Orchid Growing & Care Guide

Cody Medina

The Ghost Orchid is a rare and enigmatic flower that captures the imagination of botanists and nature enthusiasts alike. With its delicate white petals and ethereal beauty, this elusive orchid has become the stuff of legends.

Found only in select regions of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, the Ghost Orchid has fascinated scientists and adventurers for centuries, drawing them into a world of mystery and intrigue.

We will discuss the captivating story of the Ghost Orchid, exploring its unique characteristics, its elusive nature, and the ongoing efforts to conserve and protect this extraordinary plant.

What is a Ghost Orchid?

The Ghost Orchid, scientifically known as Dendrophylax lindenii, is an enigmatic and mysterious flowering plant that has captured the fascination of botanists, nature enthusiasts, and orchid lovers alike. This rare and elusive orchid is native to the swamps and wetlands of Cuba, the Bahamas, and southern Florida in the United States.

The Ghost Orchid gets its intriguing name from its ethereal appearance, which gives it the illusion of being a ghostly apparition floating in the forest. Unlike most orchids, which rely on their green leaves for photosynthesis, the Ghost Orchid lacks chlorophyll and depends on its host trees for survival. It attaches itself to the trunks or branches of specific tree species, such as the bald cypress or pond apple, using its specialized aerial roots.

This unique adaptation allows the Ghost Orchid to extract nutrients and moisture from the air and rainwater, making it an epiphytic orchid. It is often found in shady and humid habitats, nestled among the dense foliage of its host trees. Due to its elusive nature and specific habitat requirements, the Ghost Orchid is considered one of the rarest and most endangered orchids in the world.

The Ghost Orchid has a distinctive appearance that sets it apart from other orchids. It typically has a single, white, waxy flower that blooms from a long, slender stem. The flower is about three inches wide and has a delicate, ethereal beauty. The petals and sepals are long and slender, and the lip is fringed with intricate, thread-like structures that resemble delicate tendrils. The fragrance of the Ghost Orchid is said to be intoxicating, often described as a blend of jasmine and honeysuckle.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Ghost Orchid is its blooming behavior. Unlike most orchids, which have predictable flowering seasons, the Ghost Orchid is known for its sporadic and unpredictable blooming patterns. It can go several years without blooming, making the sight of a blooming Ghost Orchid a truly special and rare event.

Where is the Ghost Orchid native?

Native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, the Ghost Orchid has a relatively small distribution range. It can be found in various countries such as Cuba, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. However, within the United States, the Ghost Orchid is limited to specific states, making it a truly unique and treasured native species.

Within the United States, this plant is primarily found in the southern region of Florida. This includes areas such as the Everglades National Park, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. These locations offer the ideal habitat for the Ghost Orchid, with their humid and swampy environments providing the necessary conditions for its growth and survival.

While the Ghost Orchid’s range is mostly concentrated in Florida, there have been a few rare sightings of the orchid in other states. These sightings are considered rare and sporadic, making the Ghost Orchid a true botanical gem for those lucky enough to witness it outside of its primary habitat. Some of the states where it has been occasionally spotted include Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

It is important to note that locating the Ghost Orchid can be quite challenging, as it tends to grow high up in the canopy of trees, often hidden from view. Furthermore, due to its rarity and protected status, its exact locations are often kept confidential to prevent unauthorized collection or disturbance.

How to start from seed

Known for its ethereal beauty and ghostly appearance, this orchid has captured the imaginations of many. While it is notoriously difficult to cultivate, starting Ghost Orchids from seed can be a rewarding and exciting endeavor.

  • Acquiring Ghost Orchid Seeds: Obtaining seeds can be a challenge, as this species is endangered and protected in many areas. However, there are specialized orchid nurseries and conservation organizations that may have a limited supply of seeds available for purchase or for research purposes. It is important to ensure that the seeds are obtained legally and ethically.
  • Creating the Ideal Growing Environment: Ghost Orchids are epiphytic orchids, meaning they naturally grow on trees rather than in soil. To recreate their natural habitat, you will need to create a suitable growing environment. Start by selecting a container or tray with good drainage. Fill it with a mixture of sphagnum moss, tree fern fiber, and orchid bark to provide a loose and well-draining medium for the seeds.
  • Sterilizing the Growing Medium: Before planting the Ghost Orchid seeds, it is crucial to sterilize the growing medium to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi. This can be done by heating the medium in an oven at a temperature of 180°F (82°C) for about 30 minutes. Allow it to cool completely before proceeding.
  • Sowing the Seeds: Carefully scatter the Ghost Orchid seeds onto the surface of the sterilized growing medium. Since Ghost Orchid seeds are extremely small and dust-like, they should be handled with great care. Avoid burying or covering the seeds, as they require light for germination. Gently mist the surface of the medium with water to ensure the seeds adhere to it.
  • Creating a Humid Environment: Ghost Orchid seeds require high levels of humidity for successful germination. To create a humid environment, cover the container or tray with a clear plastic lid or wrap it with plastic wrap. This will help retain moisture and create a mini greenhouse effect. Place the container in a warm and well-lit area, away from direct sunlight.
  • Patience and Monitoring: Germination of Ghost Orchid seeds can be a slow process, often taking several months or even up to a year. It is important to be patient and not disturb the seeds during this time. Regularly monitor the growing medium’s moisture levels, ensuring it remains consistently moist but not overly wet. Mist the medium lightly whenever it starts to dry out.
  • Transplanting and Care: Once the Ghost Orchid seedlings have developed several leaves and are large enough to handle, they can be carefully transplanted into individual pots. Use a well-draining orchid mix and provide them with proper orchid care, including regular watering, indirect sunlight, and appropriate temperature and humidity levels. Ghost Orchids are delicate and require special attention, so it is essential to research their specific care requirements.

How to grow this plant in your garden

With its ethereal appearance and elusive nature, cultivating the Ghost Orchid can be a rewarding but challenging endeavor. This guide helps with the essential steps and considerations for successfully growing this plant in your garden.

  • Understanding the Ghost Orchid’s Natural Habitat: The first step in growing the Ghost Orchid is to gain a thorough understanding of its natural habitat. These orchids are primarily found in the swamps and wetlands of Florida and Cuba, where they grow in dense, shaded areas. The Ghost Orchid typically grows on the trunks and branches of trees, often near water bodies. Recreating these conditions is crucial for the successful cultivation of this elusive orchid.
  • Providing the Ideal Growing Environment: To grow Ghost Orchids, it is essential to replicate their natural environment as closely as possible. This includes providing the right amount of light, humidity, and temperature. The Ghost Orchid thrives in dappled shade and prefers high humidity levels. You can achieve this by placing the orchid in a terrarium or greenhouse with controlled conditions. Use a humidifier or mist the orchid regularly to maintain the appropriate humidity level.
  • Selecting the Right Potting Medium: Choosing the correct potting medium is crucial for the Ghost Orchid’s growth. These orchids prefer a loose, well-draining medium that mimics the tree bark they naturally grow on. A popular choice is a mix of sphagnum moss and tree fern fiber. This combination provides sufficient moisture retention while allowing water to drain away, preventing root rot.
  • Watering and Feeding: Proper watering is vital for the Ghost Orchid’s well-being. It is essential to maintain consistently moist but not waterlogged conditions. Water the orchid when the potting medium feels slightly dry to the touch. Ensure that excess water drains away to prevent stagnant conditions. Fertilize the Ghost Orchid with a balanced orchid fertilizer every few weeks during the growing season to provide necessary nutrients.
  • Propagation Techniques: Propagating Ghost Orchids can be challenging due to their specific requirements. One common method is through seed germination, which requires careful sterilization and dedication. Another option is vegetative propagation, where you separate keikis (baby orchids) from the mother plant and grow them individually. Both methods require patience and expertise but can lead to successful propagation.

Growing the Ghost Orchid is a rewarding but demanding endeavor that requires careful attention to its unique requirements. By understanding its natural habitat, providing the ideal growing environment, selecting the right potting medium, watering, and feeding appropriately. Additionally, by exploring propagation techniques, you can increase your chances of successfully cultivating this elusive and captivating orchid. Remember to approach this process with patience and a sense of wonder, as the Ghost Orchid truly is a remarkable treasure of the botanical world.

Interesting facts about Ghost Orchid

The Ghost Orchid is a rare and mysterious orchid species that has captured the fascination of botanists and nature enthusiasts alike. Here are some intriguing facts about this enigmatic flower:

  • Elusive and Rare: The Ghost Orchid is one of the rarest orchids in the world. It is native to the swamps and hammocks of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Due to its elusive nature and specific habitat requirements, it is challenging to spot in the wild. This rarity has contributed to the Ghost Orchid’s aura of mystique.
  • Non-photosynthetic Lifestyle: Unlike most plants, they do not rely on photosynthesis to obtain energy. Instead, it obtains nutrients from the surrounding environment. It achieves this by forming a symbiotic relationship with specific fungi, which provide the Ghost Orchid with necessary nutrients. This unique adaptation allows the orchid to survive in low-light environments such as the shaded swamps it calls home.
  • Ethereal Blooms: The Ghost Orchid produces delicate, white, and ghostly flowers, which give it its name. Each flower is typically around three inches in diameter and has a distinctive structure. The blooms are solitary and appear to float in mid-air, as they emerge from the stem without any visible leaves.
  • Fragrant Night Bloomer: The Ghost Orchid’s blooms are known for their captivating fragrance, which is described as a mix of sweet and citrusy notes. Interestingly, these flowers only open at night, releasing their scent to attract pollinators like moths and nocturnal insects. This nocturnal blooming behavior adds to the allure of this plant.
  • Endangered Status: Due to habitat destruction, illegal collection, and climate change, the Ghost Orchid is considered critically endangered. Protection efforts and conservation projects are underway to preserve and restore its natural habitats. The Ghost Orchid’s vulnerability and rarity make it a prized find for orchid enthusiasts, but it is crucial to prioritize its conservation.
  • Pop Culture Fame: The Ghost Orchid gained significant public attention after its portrayal in the non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean, which was later adapted into the film “Adaptation.” This exposure brought the Ghost Orchid into the mainstream consciousness and further fueled interest in this remarkable and elusive flower.
  • Research and Discovery: Despite being studied for over a century, there is still much to learn about this plant. Scientists continue to explore its unique adaptations, symbiotic relationships, and genetic makeup. Each new discovery adds to our understanding of this fascinating plant and its intricate ecological role.

It is a captivating and mysterious orchid species that has captured the curiosity of botanists and nature lovers alike. Its rarity, non-photosynthetic lifestyle, ethereal blooms, endangered status, and cultural significance make it a plant of great interest and conservation concern. As we continue to uncover its secrets, the Ghost Orchid serves as a reminder of the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

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ghost orchid

Homestead Stories: The Ghost Orchid

Author: Emily-Jane Hills Orford // Last updated on September 6, 2023 Leave a Comment

With Halloween around the corner and the thought of ghosts and goblins prowling the darkened nights, how about a real flower that looks like a ghost?

Yes, that’s right. There is actually a flower called a ghost orchid, and its tiny, spindly flower with no leaves, looks eerily like a ghost clinging to the bark of trees.

Not found outside of Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba, the ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ) is sadly, becoming an endangered species. In Florida, there are around 2,000 ghost orchids. About 10 percent of them flower in a year, and only during a brief and unpredictable period of time in summer.

In fact, ghost orchids living for decades may only bloom a couple of times! It’s a shame to think the fragile, unique (and ghostly) apparitions that are both flowers and orchids, could disappear forever. Poof!

View this post on Instagram Photo by @CarltonWard | The seductive ghost orchid survives in remote South Florida swamps, usually hanging from twisted branches of a pond apple or pop ash tree forming cathedral arches above shadowed wetlands. Approximately 2,000 ghost orchids are known to exist, of which a small fraction bloom each year, and even a smaller number are pollinated. Once sought by collectors and smugglers, the ghost orchid is surrounded by cultural lore, including the book The Orchid Thief and movie Adaptation. Even today, the exact locations of these rare plants must be kept secret for their protection. The ghost orchid is thought to pollinated by the giant sphinx month, the only flying insect with mouth parts long enough to reach into the ghost orchids extended nectar spur. This summer I will be working with researchers to place precision camera traps near orchid blooms with hopes of capturing evidence of the pollination which is thought to happen in the middle of the night. Please follow @CarltonWard to join me in the swamps on this quest. And check out the work of fellow @NatGeo Explorer @Peter_Houlihan who has done his PhD on Ghost Orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand. #GhostOrchid #Orchid #Swamp #Everglades #PathofthePanther #FloridaWild #KeepFLWild. A post shared by National Geographic (@natgeo) on Jun 24, 2018 at 3:00am PDT

As much as I’d love to add this orchid to my collection, I’m afraid I’ll have to admire it from afar. The plant is actually leafless, consisting of bare green roots that cling in random patterns to the bark of specific trees.

This orchid is aptly named, given its ghastly spectral appearance. Because it clings to tree bark. The white flower — when it does bloom (which may be once a decade) — appears to hover in the forest. The lack of leaves makes it an apparition when it does bloom. But it’s also known as palm polly and white frog orchid due, no doubt, to its unique shape and habit of growing on trees.

Its beauty and rare existence make ghost orchids attractive to pirates seeking the unusual flowers. Yes, there are people who make it their life work to plunder the natural world for financial gain. And this work results in the growing decline of ghost orchids in their natural habitat.

View this post on Instagram The American Orchid Society will be emphasizing our Conservation Endowment, a permanent fund, the interest on which allows us to make grants for the specific protection of endangered orchid species and habitat. We partner with various other conservation groups and universities to actively encourage orchid conservation, one of our organization's major goals as we approach our Centennial anniversary in April 2021.  Please consider a gift to the AOS' Conservation Endowment as we enter this season of Giving. Click the link in our Profile to donate. PIctures:  ghost orchid by Greg Allikas, Sacoila lanceolata by Jennifer Reinoso, Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid by Canadian website. A post shared by American Orchid Society (@americanorchidsociety) on Nov 27, 2019 at 5:53am PST

Can you grow these at home? Perhaps. But only nurseries in Florida supply this orchid. It’s very difficult and expensive for nurseries elsewhere as the financial risk in trying to maintain such a rare beauty is unmanageable — considering the plant’s very particular growing requirements.

Related Post: How to Care for Orchids

Those pirates who attempt to steal these plants from their natural environment are met with disappointing results. The ghost orchid usually dies in captivity. There are some botanists researching the possibility of seed germination, but this study is still in the early stages.

The ghost orchid lives up to its name not only in appearance, but also in the fact that its limited, scattered populations have put it on the endangered species list. It survives in swampy forests and small wooded islands. Its greatest threat to survival is human: poaching, climate change, destroyed habitat, and the decline of natural pollinators.

Interesting Facts About Ghost Orchids

Check out some interesting notes about this mystical floral phantom.

Their Blooming Time Is Short

When (and if) the orchid blooms, it happens once a year for a few weeks between June and August.

In any given year, just 10 percent of the ghost orchids bloom. Of that 10 percent, 10 percent will be pollinated.

Ghost Orchids Have No Leaves

The plant has scales instead of leaves and the entire plant appears to lack foliage, giving it the distinction of a leafless orchid.

The stem is also reduced, so without stems or leaves, and with only 10 percent of the ghost orchids blooming, it’s difficult to find these plants in their natural habitat.

The Ghost Orchid Is Mostly Roots

Since there are no leaves, and the stem is minimal, the ghost orchid consists mostly of roots that grow on and around a tree’s bark — instead of the typical orchid which would grow in the ground soil. As such, the ghost orchid is an epiphyte, latching onto its host tree like a parasite.

View this post on Instagram After seven years, the ghost orchid pollination manifesto is now published in @nature.research’s Scientific Reports, with research supported by @insidenatgeo (Link in Bio). Photo(s) by @macstonephoto. . Houlihan, Stone, Clem, Owen, & Emmel (2019). "Pollination ecology of the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii): A first description with new hypotheses for Darwin’s orchids." Scientific Reports, 9(1-10). . I dedicate this work to Tom Emmel. An icon in the world of conservation, scientific expeditions, Lepidoptera, & endangered species of Florida, Tom was larger than life. The Founding Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity @floridamuseum, he was more than my mentor, he was my fiercest advocate, my hero, and my friend. I would not be where or who I am today without him. Tom passed away last May on an expedition in Brazil, doing what he loved most. Nobody would have appreciated this discovery more, not even ol' Chuck Darwin. All of this beats at the core of his heart. Thank you, Tom. Wish you could’ve seen this one. I am forever grateful. . There is so much to say about this long journey, most importantly the conservation implications of our scientific research for an endangered species and the greater Everglades ecosystem. After seven years of secrecy, I’ll begin sharing this work through a series of posts, including related media about a group effort with @macstonephoto & @carltonward in @natgeo, @biographic_magazine, and @audubonsociety. Thank you to Fakahatchee @fl.stateparks and @corkscrewswamp for all of the support; to @macstonephoto, I appreciate you immensely – thank you for everything, on this research, exploration, photography, and far beyond. Much love. . Natural history research is always important. My hope is that these stories amplify the voice of the Everglades. The water that runs through these swamps gives us life, and we must do better in protecting them. The future of these wild places, the wildlife within, and humanity, all depend on us. . #ghostorchid #florida #everglades #orchid #conservation #natgeo A post shared by Peter Houlihan (@peter_houlihan) on Sep 6, 2019 at 2:58am PDT

Since there are no leaves to collect the sunlight for photosynthesis, the roots, which contain the necessary chlorophyll, take on this task. Not only do the roots anchor the plant on the tree, they also take in the water and nutrients the leaves would normally collect. These roots have small white marks (pneumatodes) to perform the gas exchange required for the plant’s respiration and photosynthesis.

Without the greenish blend offered by foliage, the plants root system is camouflaged against the tree bark when the plant isn’t blooming. When the flower does appear, it grows on a thin, spindly spike that projects away from the roots, giving the illusion it’s floating freely in the forest.

They Smell Like Apples

There is an interesting aroma to this plant when it’s in bloom. It actually kind of smells like apples, most noticeably in the early morning.

Giant Sphinx Moths Are Their Friend

The ghost orchid relies on the giant sphinx moth for pollination. The plant’s pollen is hidden deep within the flowers and needs a long proboscis for the insect to dig deep inside.

They Have 18 Preferred Host Trees

In Florida, the ghost orchid prefers the pop ash, pond apple, and bald cypress trees. In Cuba, it has at least 18 preferred host trees. Predators like the emerald ash borer are killing some of the host trees, thus depleting this plant’s natural habitat.

Poachers Are Making Them Extinct

With its rare and remote, inhospitable habitat, one would think an estimated 2,000 plants in South Florida alone would be enough to protect the orchid from plunderers. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case as this rarity makes a prime target for poachers eager to sell the plant on the black market. If they can find it, that is. The plants’ locations are kept secret and without prior knowledge of their habitat, very difficult to find. Especially when it’s not in flower.

There’s Fungus Among Us

Although almost impossible to cultivate, there is one fungus that seems to help. Michael Kane and other researchers studied the barks of trees where these plants prosper. It was discovered that the moist bark harbors the fungus genus, Ceratobasidium , which excels at a higher germination rate.

The Ghost Orchid Is a Movie Star

The ghost orchid can claim movie star greatness as its plundering plight made headlines in 1993 when poachers tried to steal over a hundred plants. The story made headlines and was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage (Adaption, 2002) based on Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief .

View this post on Instagram Amongst the rarest flowers of the world, the ghost orchid was the subject of the book the Orchid Thief as well as the movie Adaptation, which starred Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Only found in Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas, the endangered ghost orchid has been greatly affected over the years by poaching and habitat loss. It has an intricate relationship with its sole pollinator, the giant sphinx moth; where the moth’s extremely long tongue is the only one capable of reaching the sweet reward down the orchid’s nectar spur (pictured on the lower flower). Florida has a great variety of natural treasures, venture out and discover what it has to offer. 🙌🏼 #GhostOrchid A post shared by Mario Cisneros (@zeroeye) on Jun 10, 2018 at 6:49am PDT

With Florida’s wetlands threatened by development, drying up, and preyed upon by poachers, the ghost orchid may remain something of an apparitional enigma. Since I probably will not have the opportunity to grow one in my own, indoor orchid garden, or visit the protected areas where this plant grows at a time when the flowers appear, I doubt I’ll ever get to see these eerie, ghost-like anomalies in real life.

But I am continually amazed at flora that reflect the endless possibilities of nature’s creativity. Ghost orchids indeed. Too bad they only bloom in July and August in certain, limited environments. If only …

To learn more about the ghost orchid and to see some pretty remarkable shots of this elusive flower, check out this short film from National Geographic.

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About Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is an award-winning author of several books, including Gerlinda (CFA 2016) which received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards, To Be a Duke (CFA 2014) which was named Finalist and Silver Medalist in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and received an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards. She writes about the extra-ordinary in life and her books, short stories, and articles are receiving considerable attention. For more information on the author, check out her website at: https://emilyjanebooks.ca

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Environmentalists want to protect a rare 'ghost' orchid as an endangered species

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit because they want the federal government to list a rare orchid, found mainly in Florida, as an endangered species.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Ghost orchids grow in just a few places in Florida and Cuba. There are only about 1,500 left in Florida, and they're under threat from habitat loss and poachers. Now they're also the subject of a federal lawsuit. Environmental groups are asking the federal government to immediately take steps to protect the ghost orchid as an endangered species. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are just a few places in Florida where a visitor can expect to see a ghost orchid. One of them is the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. A particularly spectacular ghost orchid blooms there every summer just off a walkway. Sanctuary director Keith Laakkonen says it always attracts lots of visitors.

KEITH LAAKKONEN: Kind of hear this gasp, or you hear this pause when they see this really delicate, beautiful flower that's sort of way up there, you know? It's just really magical.

ALLEN: Orchids are charismatic as plants go, and ghost orchids have a mystique all their own. They cling to certain species of trees, don't have leaves, and are hardly visible for much of the year until the white flowers - just a few inches long - bloom. Because the plants are well camouflaged, when that happens, the flowers seem to float in midair, giving the ghost orchid its name. It's been featured in books and even a movie. Environmental groups have asked the federal government to give the orchid protections under the Endangered Species Act, but it's a slow process. Elise Bennett with the Center for Biological Diversity says the groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to speed up the process.

ELISE BENNETT: And we based that petition on overwhelming scientific evidence that shows precipitous declines for the ghost orchid, as well as ongoing and worsening threats in the future.

ALLEN: Among those threats are loss of habitat, destructive hurricanes and sea-level rise. But the No. 1 issue scientists and environmental groups are worried about is poaching. Ghost orchids rarely survive when taken from the wild. Poaching has already led to the extinction of at least two species of Florida orchids. Last year, law enforcement officers arrested a poacher who had taken 36 rare plants, including a ghost orchid. George Gann with the Institute for Regional Conservation says social media and the availability of information on the internet has made poaching a bigger threat than ever.

GEORGE GANN: Because of the data that are available online - that it's become much more popular and known about. And so poachers have much better information.

ALLEN: Gann says when he began researching and documenting ghost orchids and other species as a high school student in the 1970s, few people ventured into Florida's cypress swamps. In recent decades, he says, that's changed. More and more visitors are willing to wade through the swamps for a chance to see ghost orchids and other rare species. And that, he says, is a problem.

GANN: People are well-intentioned, but the amount of human traffic, of people walking and touching and trying to see the ghost orchid, is probably not sustainable.

ALLEN: Listing the ghost orchid as an endangered species would allow the federal government to designate the areas where it's found as critical habitat. That would open the way to additional protections, including possibly limiting access so the orchid isn't, as Gann says, loved to death.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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a rustic sphinx moth probing a ghost orchid bloom

Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce

Incredible photos show multiple species pollinate the rare and enigmatic flower, which is good news for the endangered species.

The first-ever photo showing a pawpaw sphinx moth ( Dolba hyloeus ) probing and likely pollinating a ghost orchid bloom, in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. It was previously thought only one species pollinated these flowers: the giant sphinx moth.

SOUTHWEST FLORIDA Deep in remote Florida swamps, a team of researchers and photographers have made a new discovery that upends what we thought we knew about the ghost orchid, one of the world’s most iconic flowers, and how it reproduces.

These rare, charming orchids were long thought to be pollinated by a single insect: the giant sphinx moth. This massive creature sounds like a miniature jet as it zooms through the swamp with a six-inch wingspan, says conservation scientist Peter Houlihan .

But now, photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. and Mac Stone show that a couple of moth species other than the giant sphinx visit and carry the ghost orchid ’s pollen—and the giant sphinx itself may play a completely different role than previously thought.

These results provide insight into the plant’s virtually unknown reproductive biology, and they suggest that conserving the endangered species may be less difficult than assumed, since it’s not dependent on only one pollinator, says Houlihan, who collaborated with Ward and Stone to make the discovery. The findings also show the ghost orchids can be important food sources for moths.

“It’s very good news,” Stone says.

Ghost orchids are found in Florida and Cuba, and there are only about 2,000 ghost orchids in the state. As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.

They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.

Orchid fever

On a recent summer day in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge , home to a quarter of the state’s ghosts, I spent many hours searching for one in bloom with Ward and refuge biologist Mark Danaher. We hiked through knee-deep water the color of sweet tea from early morning until afternoon, marveling at the abundance of diversity of air plants and orchids. When we finally found a ghost, it was really magic.

The plant’s bright white, delicate flowers seem to hover above its stems, and the modified petals have long, curly legs that flutter in the breeze. In the center of the flower is the entrance to a tube called a nectar spur, which contains sweet secretions. Ideally, the nectar will attract a moth, which will elongate its tongue-like proboscis and stick its head into the tube. If all goes well, the moth will contact the plant’s bundle of pollen, called a pollinium, which will stick to its head, and hopefully be carried on to fertilize another ghost .

These orchids have long nectar spurs, stretching five inches or more in length, though this varies. Given the size of the tube, it has long been thought that only the giant sphinx moths would be capable of reaching the nectar.

But when Ward set up several remote camera traps in this wildlife refuge, he documented five species of moths visiting these ghost orchids. Two of these species, fig sphinx ( Pachylia ficus ) and pawpaw sphinx moths ( Dolba hyloeus ), had ghost orchid pollinia on their heads.

Stone and Houlihan worked out of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary , one of the world’s largest old-growth cypress forests, a 45-minute drive to the northwest.

The sanctuary, owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, has set up a scope for visitors to see a massive ghost orchid, known as the “super ghost.” This flower sits 50 feet up on a cypress, and it’s the only ghost that is relatively easy to see. In mid-July, the orchid had eight flowers, “which is just insane,” Stone says—most plants put out only one flower at a time.

In 2018, Stone (assisted by Houlihan) spent countless hours setting up a camera on this orchid, tree-climbing and tinkering.

Stone, who lives in South Carolina, says that during the height of the work last summer, he’d often lay awake at night thinking about how to perfect the shots. “I’d book a last-minute flight and then just move my camera an inch,” he says. “It was just madness.”

All experienced a bit of orchid fever. “I do think it’s possible that orchids drive people crazy,” Ward says: The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours.

But all this work paid off. In August Mac captured photos of a fig sphinx visiting the flower with ghost orchid pollinia on its head, complementing Ward’s pictures of the same in the panther refuge.

Both photographers also revealed giant sphinxes visiting the ghosts—but the insects weren't carrying any pollinia. In one shot by Stone, the moth can clearly by seen drinking nectar, but its head is not nearly close enough to the flower to pick up the pollinium.

This led to a wild hypothesis: Perhaps the giant sphinxes steal nectar from the ghost orchids without pollinating them, Houlihan says. His research also turned up a dozen local hawkmoth species (including the two species Ward photographed pollinating orchids) that have tongues that are long enough to theoretically sup the orchid’s sugar.

“There are probably lots of moths that can pollinate these flowers,” he says.

The portion of the research done by Houlihan and Stone, in Corkscrew, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports ; meanwhile, a study by Ward, Danaher, and others appears in Florida Entomologist .

Blame Darwin

There are many flower species that are pollinated by a single moth or butterfly.

Most famously, in 1862, Darwin examined a Madagascar orchid now named after him (Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale ) that has a foot-long nectar tube. He was somewhat exasperated, as he hadn’t heard of any moth with a 12-inch tongue. “Good heavens,” he wrote, “what insect can suck it?” He hypothesized that there must be an insect in the area with just such a proboscis.

He was proven right 130 years later, when Morgan’s sphinx moth ( Xanthopan morganii ) was seen feeding from the orchid with its huge tongue. Houlihan’s studies of this moth, funded by the National Geographic Society, helped lead to his work on ghost orchids.

This example may have rubbed off on people’s thinking about the ghost orchid, says Larry Zettler , an orchid expert at Illinois College. “Everyone assumed the same kind of thing would happen with the ghost orchid, because you don’t have this massive nectar spur for no reason,” he says.

But having multiple pollinators, which apparently isn’t the case for Darwin’s orchid, will help to provide more opportunities for the ghost orchid to successfully reproduce.

“It’s good to have redundancy in ecosystems,” says Mike Owen, a biologist at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve , where he and his colleagues have discovered 450 ghost orchids since 1993.

The collaborators' work collectively "updates Charles Darwin’s hypotheses about pollination ecology that had persisted and remained unquestioned for more than 150 years," Houlihan says. The Scientific Reports paper also calls for the flowers to be listed as federally endangered, due to their rarity; they are currently only considered endangered by the state of Florida.

Orchid thieves

Two months after Owen started his job, horticulturist John Laroche, along with two members of the Seminole tribe, were stopped while attempting to remove dozens of valuable air plants and orchids from the preserve. This haul including three ghost orchids—a story told, along with the giant-sphinx-only pollination theory, in Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief and the film based on it, Adaptation .

Since that time, the reserve has introduced various measures to reduce poaching, such as installing camera traps. The same is true in the panther refuge, Danaher says, where more than 40 cameras have been installed to catch photos of wildlife and would-be poachers.

Poaching is not only illegal, but a terrible idea, because ghost orchids invariably die after being moved even slightly, Owen says. They require very specific micro-environments, which is why they thrive in Florida’s swamps, where flowing water slowly passes through, moderating temperatures and humidity. Fakahatchee Strand, a channel of low-lying, oft-flooded strand forest has the highest diversity of air plants and orchids in the continental U.S.

Development in South Florida has severely altered water flows that are so vital to the ecosystem and the orchids, but the importance of this untrammeled flow is being increasingly recognized.

The importance of old-growth

It’s also crucial to conserve remaining old-growth forests, which are home to ghosts and many other rare plants and animals, says Shawn Clem , research director for the sanctuary.

The super ghost itself shows people that the flower is not an abstract concept—but a very real plant that depends on a healthy flow of water to survive, she says. The new discovery about the ghosts’ pollinators “speaks to the need for conserving places like Corkscrew so that we can continue to understand the complex ecology of the region,” Clem adds.

Cypress trees once covered much or most of southwestern Florida, and Corkscrew offers a glimpse of how the land once appeared. Many trees reach to heights of around a hundred feet, and some of them are about 600 years old.

The super ghost is by far the highest situated of its species, and one of only few known to occur in cypress trees. But Houlihan and Stone think that, once, it was probably a common scenario—and these highly perched plants were likely incredibly important for seeding the understory below.

“This is just one reason why these old-growth forests are so important,” Stone says.

The plants produce hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds, which are distributed by air currents, and as you can imagine, it’s easier for seeds to drift downward from a high spot than to be lifted upward.

When the seeds land in a choice spot, they must also come into contact with the right kind of fungus. This is the case for all orchids, and many of them require an individual species. Zettler recently discovered that ghost orchids can only germinate in the presence of one species, in the genus Ceratobasidium .

That being said, Mike Kane , a horticulturist at the University of Florida, has figured out how to cultivate ghost orchids in the lab. That discovery has already helped to increase the supply of plants, some of which have been replanted to the wild, in places like the panther refuge.

There, and in the Fakahatchee and Big Cypress National Preserve, the ghost orchids are primarily found in pop ash trees, followed by pond apples. These trees are much shorter than cypresses, and many of the ghost orchids there are only a few feet off the ground.

When I finally saw my first such bloom, chest-high, with lip-like petals and a striking bright white color, I began to see how orchids hold such strange power over people. Ward is a good example.

After seeing his first flowering ghost in July 2012, in the Fakahatchee preserve, he returned for three days in a row to get the right shot—and has been photographing them ever since.

“The ghost orchid motivated me to explore these swamps,” Ward says, “and I hope its story can inspire others to protect the places where it lives.”

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3 Rarest Orchids In The World

lady-slipper-orchid

Orchids possess a rare brand of beauty, the type that exudes class and elegance without an effort, the type that stands out from a big bunch of other flowers, the type that you won’t get tired of looking at no matter how long. No wonder they're the star of most flower arrangements.

But did you know, there are orchid species that are actually considered rare in the sense that they’ve gone extinct or hardly ever seen these days even in their natural habitats.

Unfortunately, these rare orchid species’ dwindled in numbers due to man-made causes that could have well been prevented had we known any better. These include excessive harvesting and collection of flower aficionados and for horticultural purposes, and other contributing environmental factors, such as pesticide pollution, the death of the pollinators, and urbanization.  

Check out some of the rarest and most exquisite orchids in the world:

Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Astonishing fact of the day: There are about four times as many #orchid species as there are species of mammals. Wow! Some 25,000 species, in fact, in nearly 800 genera. And it’s a safe bet that you haven’t seen even a fraction of them—Yet! You can start making up that deficit at The Huntington’s International Orchid Show & Sale on Oct. 21-23, 2016. Hundreds of beautifully diverse blooms will be on exhibit, spanning the Orchidaceae family from Aerangis to Zygopetalum. (Pictured: Paphiopedilum Neeri-Gold, from The Huntington’s orchid collections.) This year’s show is presented in conjunction with the @AmericanOrchidSociety’s Fall Members' Meeting, which will be held at The Huntington. Details at www.huntington.org/orchidshow #orchids #americanorchidsociety #AOS #flowersofinstagram A post shared by The Huntington (@thehuntingtonlibrary) on Oct 8, 2016 at 12:24pm PDT

One of the rarest and perhaps prettiest flowers in the UK and in the whole world, the lady’s slipper orchids ( Cypripedium calceolus ) got its name from their charming pouch flowers, which resembles a slipper or a shoe. Apparently in the lead as one of the slowest growing plants too, you have to wait around six to 11 years for the lady’s slipper orchids to mature and produce a flower.

Lady slipper orchids are Classified as Critically Endangered in the Red List of Great Britain, Listed under Appendix II of the Bern Convention and Annexes II and IV of the Habitats Directive, and Appendix II of CITES.

Hochstetter’s Butterfly Orchid

 Hochstetter's butterfly orchid

Credits: Prof. R. Bateman,  PeerJ

Dubbed as Europe’s rarest orchid of all time, the Hochstetter’s butterfly orchid ( Platanthera azorica ) was first discovered in 1838 but was so rare that it was never seen or heard of until scientists found it on one volcanic ridge in the Azores in 2013.

Ghost Orchid

are ghost orchids real

Credits: PhysOrg

Ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ), or the American ghost orchid, also go by the names palm polly and white frog orchid. It is native in Cuba, the Bahamas, and in Florida. 

These endangered orchid species got their name because of their stark white color, courtesy of the absence of chlorophyll (the green pigment found in plants) in their florets and their lack of leaves, which interestingly make them seem like they’re floating in the dark. Discovered in Britain in 1954, ghost orchids were not extinct at all originally. However, due to over-collection and similar reasons, as mentioned above, the ghost orchids diminished in numbers to the point where it was declared officially extinct in Britain in 2010.  Today ghost orchids are in the CITES Appendix II and are highly protected by Florida state laws.

If you've seen any of these orchids in real life, lucky for you. But if you want orchids that are just as gorgeous but are sustainable, check out our vast Orchid Collectio n today.  

I love Orchids and I just discovered one rare orchid growing on a tree. I call it rare coz I’ve never seen it anywhere not evn on the pics posted online. I wish I cud send a picture of it.

You have fantastic orchids ?

Leave a comment

Blue Orchids: Are They Real Flowers? Do They Exist Naturally?

Many gardeners look for that single flower that will set their garden apart from others. For some people, that's finding a flower of a unique color. Few flowers are more beautiful than orchids, and blue flowers are some of the most sought after. So what about blue orchids? Are these flowers actually real? Do they exist without being modified? Gardening expert Madison Moulton gets down to the nitty gritty details in this article.

Author avatar

Written by Madison Moulton Last updated: October 19, 2023 | 5 min read

Dyed Blue Orchid Flowers

The natural world is packed full of plants with a massive range of weird shapes and incredible colors. When it comes to flowers , one of the weirdest shapes has to be the ever-popular orchid, a plant so beloved that it has spawned thousands (possibly millions) of fanatics and fan clubs across the world.

When it comes to color, the one gardeners always seem to look out for is blue. Blue is curiously absent in the natural world , leading us to covet any plants with a tinge of blue.

So, what happens when you put these two things together? You get blue orchids – a very rare and captivating phenomenon shrouded in mystery. Do true blue orchids really exist? Are blue orchid flowers real? Let’s find out.

Why Do We Love Blue Flowers?

Vanda Flower in Wild

Blue flowers are a rare find in the natural world. Only a small proportion of all known plants around the world contain blue pigments . Others may look slightly blue, but are actually purple, or only have a blue coating that makes them appear that color.

Only 10% of flowering plants are blue, making it a rare and coveted color. The key to this rarity is an organic compound called delphinidin . Delphinidin is an anthocyanidin, or plant pigment, that makes some flowers like delphiniums blue. It is also present in grapes, cranberries and pomegranates.

That doesn’t mean flowers can’t become blue. With some genetic alteration or hybridization , many cultivars of popular plants now produce blue flowers. However, they won’t be blue if found in the wild, and plants grown from seeds of that same plant will likely produce different colored flowers.

In other cases, flowers may appear blue with other modifications like dye or paint . Some of these are obvious, such as paint that has a certain unnatural texture. But dyed flowers usually appear quite real and are often marketed as ‘rare’ blue flowers to unsuspecting customers.

Are There True Blue Orchids?

With all these factors to consider, the important question is – do true blue orchids exist? And the answer is a definite yes . And a no, but we’ll get to that later.

There are very few orchid species that are blue in color , but they do exist. Most are very rare, meaning you won’t find them in your local garden center – if you ever come across them at all. One is more widely available than the other, but is still quite hard to find and very difficult to care for.

Thelymitra Crinite

WIld Australian Blue Orchid

For an example of a rare blue orchid found in the wild, we have the Blue Lady orchid, Thelymitra crinite . This orchid is native to a small southwestern area of Western Australia. It is probably the bluest orchid around, and possibly one of the bluest flowers you can find.

There is no mistaking the color of this adorable, delicate flower. Many ‘blue’ flowers lean more towards purple, either light or dark, but this one is 100% blue.

It grows along coastal areas or around forests, sometimes near swamps. It is quite common in the small region of Australia it grows in, not endangered or too rare, but it is almost impossible to find and difficult to purchase anywhere else in the world.

Vanda coerulea

Blue Vanda Orchid

The most well-known blue orchid, and one you may have a chance of spotting, is Blue Vanda or Vanda coerulea . Unfortunately, as they are so sought after, you may have to join in on a bidding war, pry it from another buyer’s hands, or steal one to actually get the chance to grow and keep one.

Vanda coerulea was first discovered in 1837 by botanist Dr. William Griffith in Northeast India. He found this stunning blue flower along the river valleys south of the eastern Himalayas and decided to bring it back to England to study. Unfortunately, the nature of this finicky flower meant it died on the journey.

Another botanist made the same discovery several years later, Joseph Dalton Hooker. This discovery was described in a quote from the book The Enchanted Orchid:

“Near the village of Larnac, oak woods are passed in which Vanda coerulea grows in profusion, waving its panicles of azure blue in the wind. We collected seven men’s loads of this superb plant for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, but owing to unavoidable accidents and difficulties, few specimens reached England alive.” Joseph Dalton Hooker – The Enchanted Orchid

Since then, the plant has been further studied and found in areas from this region all the way to south-eastern China.

This vanda orchid is native to Asia , found in parts of India, Myanmar, Thailand and China. It has delicate, narrow-petaled flowers that stand large and proud on tall flower spikes. They typically attach themselves to small trees with little foliage, sporting 20-30 flower spikes with long-lasting blooms.

Due to its blue hue, this species is used by botanists and horticulturalists to develop new blue orchid cultivars . Studies have shown the flowers can also be used in eye drops to treat eye problems like glaucoma. The compounds within the flower are also believed to have anti-aging properties.

Are There Other Blue Orchids?

White Orchid with Blue Dye Injected

You may be surprised to find only two orchids on this list. You may be even more surprised to hear about their rarity if you’ve come across many blue orchids in stores near you.

But, as pretty as they are and as realistic as they may look, the commonly found blue orchids – usually phalaenopsis – are not actually blue . They appear blue thanks to the blue dye injected into the stem of the plant. As the plant takes up water with this dye, the flowers turn a shade of blue within a couple of hours.

You can usually spot dyed orchids if you look closely. The color of the flowers will appear unevenly distributed . They may also be a very vivid blue or an intense pastel blue that isn’t found in any orchids, let alone phalaenopsis.

The original flowers are usually white in color, which allows the dye to completely take over. This dye will stick around in the flowers until they fall off. Any flowers that emerge after that will be white – the original color.

This may seem like a harmless practice to some, but it can trick unsuspecting gardeners into paying far more for a plant that is, underneath all the dye, a regular phalaenopsis orchid.

For example, a few years ago, a blue phalaenopsis orchid called Blue Mystique was marketed as the first-ever blue phalaenopsis. That drove up the price of the plant, with many purchasing it in excitement, only to find that the new blooms emerging from the plant were white with no hint of blue in sight.

Any blue orchid you come across at your local store will likely be a dyed blue orchid. Keep an eye out at specialist orchid growers for true blue orchids like Blue Vanda if you want the real thing.

Are The Flowers Real?

Flower with Blue Dye

The dyed orchids – not just in blue but in many other vivid colors – lead some to believe the flowers are not real. However, that isn’t the case. They are 100% real flowers, they just aren’t naturally occurring flowers.

The plant still functions as any other phalaenopsis does, requiring the same care. They need a root drench approximately once per week, bright indirect light and regular applications of fertilizer to grow successfully. If you want the plant to flower again – even though the flowers might not be blue – you’ll need to cut back the flower stalks and ensure it is in the right temperature and humidity conditions.

The same goes for any dyed orchids you come across in stores. These plants and their flowers are still completely real, they just look slightly different from how they exist naturally, without human intervention.

Final Thoughts

Blue orchids are absolutely stunning , unlike any other orchid on the market. Unfortunately, they are usually not naturally grown that way. Most we see in person are merely dyed blue, even if they aren’t marketed as such.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist in nature . The Blue Vanda orchid is the most common, but Thelymitra Crinite also sports a blue hue out in the wild bound to catch any passer-by’s eye.

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Discovered on the island of Madagascar, A. bigibbum was found by Kew botanist Johan Herman

Tree that lives underground among newly named plant species

Volcano-top orchid also named by scientists contending with extinctions caused by the human destruction of nature

Two types of tree and a palm that live underground are among the new plant species named in 2023 and highlighted by scientists at the Royal Botanical Garden Kew in the UK.

The palm is unique, as the only species known to flower and fruit almost exclusively underground, and was discovered in Borneo. The trees were discovered in the deep Kalahari sands of highland Angola, where the free-draining terrain has led a number of species evolving to live at least 90% underground.

Other new species include an orchid found atop a volcano, fungi from the apparently barren wastes of Antarctica and a novel fungus found in food waste in South Korea. The most mysterious new species is a plant from Mozambique that appears to be carnivorous.

There are 400,000 named plant species but scientists estimate there are another 100,000 yet to be identified. The botanists are in a race against time to discover many plants and fungi before the ongoing destruction of the natural world drives them to extinction. Lost species not only means their unique biology is gone for ever, but also potential human uses as medicines , food and even plastic recyclers .

Every year, scientists around the world name about 2,500 new species of plant and the same number of fungi. In 2023, RGB Kew researchers named 74 plants and 15 fungi species.

“It is imperative now, more so than ever, that we do everything in our power to go out into the field with our partners and work out which species of plants and fungi we haven’t given a scientific description yet,” said Dr Martin Cheek, part of RBG Kew’s Africa team. “Without doing so, we risk losing these species without ever even knowing they existed. As we make these wonderful new discoveries, we must remember that nature is under threat, and we have the power to do something about it.”

About 40% of named plant species are threatened with extinction , as habitats are razed for farmland and other human development. But as many as 75% of the world’s undescribed plant species are thought to already be threatened with extinction.

Dr Raquel Pino-Bodas, also at RBG Kew, said: “Although fungi are one of the three major groups of eukaryotes, along with plants and animals, most fungal diversity remains undiscovered. Only 5-10% percent of all existing species are known.”

She said ramping up the search for new species was critical: “Among this incredible diversity of fungal species, we are bound to discover new sources of food, medicines and other active compounds that can help us find nature-based solutions to big challenges.”

Kew mycologist Dr Paul Kirk found a new species of fungi in soya bean waste in South Korea. It is in the same genus as other fungi that thrive in elevated temperatures and can be pathogenic to humans, though this species is thought to be low risk.

“New fungal species are not only found in remote, unexplored areas, they can be found in every environment on the planet,” said Pino-Bodas.

Kew scientists Dr William Baker and Dr Benedikt Kuhnhäuser were tipped off about the underground palm by a Malaysian scientist and local communities that knew of the plant and its bright red fruit. Baker said the find showed that nature still has many surprises up its sleeve and that Indigenous knowledge is a valuable tool for the accelerated discovery of species.

The new orchid species was found fortuitously on top of an extinct volcano on the Indonesian island of Waigeo. The botanists hoped to rediscover a blue orchid that had not been seen for 80 years, which they did. But they also found a new orchid on the summit of Mount Nok, with spectacular, bright red flowers.

Antarctica is a poor place for plant hunting, with the icy continent virtually devoid of flowering plants, but it is home to many lichens. Lichens are a partnership between a fungus and algae and/or cyanobacteria. In 2023, Pino-Bodas and colleagues named three new species of fungi that grow on the lichen near the Spanish base on the Antarctic peninsula.

Another curious find was discovered in Mozambique: a plant covered in insect-trapping glandular hairs, like sundews . However, the plant was revealed to be in the genus Crepidorhopalon and therefore unrelated to any known carnivorous plant. The plant has been seen to trap insects and research is now under way to determine if the plant digests them for nutrition.

The other highlighted species named by Kew scientists are nine new species of tobacco from Australia, a Madagascan orchid, and a new violet relative from Thailand. The latter is only known from two sites, both of which are unprotected, and is therefore already considered threatened with extinction. Also threatened by farming and housing expansion is a new species of plant in South Africa that produces the dye indigo.

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'Jellyfish', 'Chandelier' latest reported UFOs caught on video to stoke public interest

are ghost orchids real

An unidentified flying object seen in a video flying over a U.S. operations base in Iraq has been officially named "the jellyfish" UAP, according to UFO enthusiast Jeremy Corbell.

The UFO enthusiast shared the "RAW footage" of the October 2018 sighting on his YouTube channel on Tuesday. The video appears to show the jellyfish-like object flying over a military base at a consistent speed and moving in one direction. Corbell said the vehicle was filmed over the Persian Gulf at night on an undisclosed day and time.

Corbell, who has reported on UFOs for years, said the object moved through a sensitive military installation and over a body of water, where it eventually submerged. After around 17 minutes, Corbell said the UAP reemerged from the water and flew suddenly at a speed far more rapid than what technology could capture on camera.

"This UAP of unknown origin displayed transmedium capability," Corbell posted on X (formerly Twitter). "The origin, intent and capability of the Anomalous Aerial Vehicle remains unknown."

The UAP displayed a positive lift, the force holds an aircraft in the air, without the typical aerodynamic means for lift and thrust, according to Corbell. The signatures normally associated with the propulsion maneuvers were absent.

USA TODAY has reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration and Corbell for comment.

Lake Tahoe avalanche: Forecast warned of avalanche risk ahead of deadly avalanche at Palisades Tahoe ski resort

Jeremy Corbell reports 'Chandelier' UAP sighting

Corbell also shared a still from a video Thursday showing a filmed object called "The 'Chandelier' UAP."

He said the image of the vehicle was taken over the Persian Gulf at an undisclosed day and time using thermographic technology.

"This vehicle of unknown origin, had no conventional flight control surfaces," Corbell said.

Corbell said more information on the UAP sightings can be found in his three part "UFO REVOLUTION" docuseries, available to watch for free on Tubi.

What are UAPs?

"Unidentified anomalous phenomena" is a term used by NASA to describe "observations of the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or as known natural phenomena." Until December 2022, it was known as “unidentified aerial phenomena” rather than anomalous. 

NASA began a study in October 2022 to further analyze UAP data ,  with promises of a mid-2023 report on its findings. The study is searching for the  nature and origins  of UAP, scientific analysis techniques, examining the risk to the National Air Space and ways to enhance air traffic management data acquisition systems.

Civilian pilots could soon report UAP sightings to government

Anyone can access declassified information about UFOs on the Pentagon's All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office website , the public can not yet report their own sightings to the FAA.

However, a new House bill, introduced Thursday by Rep. Robert Garcia (D-California) and Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin), would create reporting mechanism for commercial airline pilots to report any sightings. The bipartisan legislation would allow FAA air traffic controllers, flight attendants, maintenance workers, dispatchers, and airlines themselves to make these reports.

Garcia called UAP transparency "incredibly important for our national security" in a statement, which he said was the basis for the proposed measures.

"This bill is another step forward for disclosure and to provide a safe process for UAP reporting by civilian and commercial personnel," Garcia said.

Contributing: Eric Lagatta and Clare Mulroy

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    are ghost orchids real

COMMENTS

  1. What Is A Ghost Orchid

    Ghost orchid plants are also known as white frog orchids, thanks to the frog-like shape of the odd-looking ghost orchid flowers. Read on for more ghost orchid information. Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow? With the exception of a handful of people, nobody knows exactly where ghost orchid plants grow.

  2. 11 Enchanting Quirks of the Rare Ghost Orchid

    1. It only blooms once a year for a few weeks—or not at all Aside from their flowers, ghost orchids keep a low profile on their host tree. Rhona Wise / AFP / Getty Images The ghost orchid (...

  3. Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce

    Ghost orchids are found in Florida and Cuba, and there are only about 2,000 ghost orchids in the state. As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species.

  4. 'Ghost' orchid that grows in the dark among new plant finds

    A ghost orchid that grows in complete darkness, an insect-trapping tobacco plant and an "exploding firework" flower are among the new species named by scientists in the last year. The species...

  5. Facts About The Ghost Orchid

    Ghost orchid is a perennial orchid that is an epiphyte in nature. Lindenii in its scientific name is actually a name of a famous botanist from Belgium. This orchid was identified by Jean Jules Linden in 1844 in Cuba.

  6. Rare Ghost Orchid Blooms Early At Audubon's Corkscrew Sanctuary

    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.

  7. Dendrophylax lindenii

    Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid (a common name also used for Epipogium aphyllum) is a rare perennial epiphyte from the orchid family ( Orchidaceae ). It is native to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. [2] [4] Other common names include palm polly and white frog orchid . Name

  8. Florida's rare ghost orchids are getting cut off from water

    Published October 25, 2019 • 12 min read The ghost orchid is an unusual, and unusually beautiful, flower found only in Cuba and the flooded forests of South Florida, where there are about 2,000...

  9. The Ghost Orchid: one of Britain's rarest plants

    Regarded as extinct Ghost Orchids were first discovered in Britain in 1854 but were only seen 11 times before the 1950s. They were seen regularly in a few Chilterns sites between 1953 and 1987 but then disappeared and were regarded as extinct until one plant was discovered in 2009.

  10. Ghost Orchid

    The ghost orchid's tangled mass of green roots clings tightly to the trunks of various tree species including cypress, pond apple, and maple and is visible year-round.It is distinguished from other species of orchid by the presence of thin white markings dotting its roots. In June and July, at the peak of mosquito season, the ghost orchid blooms.

  11. Ghost orchid

    Ghost orchid, is a common name for several orchids, and may refer to: Dendrophylax lindenii, the American ghost orchid; Epipogium aphyllum, the Eurasian ghost orchid This page was last edited on 29 August 2023, at 18:34 (UTC). Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may ...

  12. Searching for the Ghost Orchids of the Everglades

    The "super ghost" in Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a mass of ghost orchids, perched high in an ancient cypress tree that has produced flowers in every month of the year. Before the cypress forests of the eastern U.S. were logged, many ghost orchids may have bloomed atop these trees.

  13. Ghost Orchid Growing & Care Guide

    The Ghost Orchid, scientifically known as Dendrophylax lindenii, is an enigmatic and mysterious flowering plant that has captured the fascination of botanists, nature enthusiasts, and orchid lovers alike. This rare and elusive orchid is native to the swamps and wetlands of Cuba, the Bahamas, and southern Florida in the United States.

  14. Homestead Stories: The Ghost Orchid • Insteading

    Approximately 2,000 ghost orchids are known to exist, of which a small fraction bloom each year, and even a smaller number are pollinated. Once sought by collectors and smugglers, the ghost orchid is surrounded by cultural lore, including the book The Orchid Thief and movie Adaptation.

  15. Environmentalists want to protect a rare 'ghost' orchid as an

    Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit because they want the federal government to list a rare orchid, found mainly in Florida, as an endangered species. Ghost orchids grow in just a few places ...

  16. Ghost orchid pollination revealed for first time in incredible photos

    15:50 Rare ghost orchid has multiple pollinators, groundbreaking video reveals Scientists and photographers captured footage that upends what we know about the famed, endangered flower....

  17. 3 Rarest Orchids In The World

    624 likes thehuntingtonlibrary Astonishing fact of the day: There are about four times as many #orchid species as there are species of mammals. Wow! Some 25,000 species, in fact, in nearly 800 genera. And it's a safe bet that you haven't seen even a fraction of them—Yet!

  18. PDF How to Grow the Ghost Orchid

    The plaque should be about 6 inches (12.5 cm) wide by 16 inches (40 cm) long, remembering that it is hopefully going to be home to the orchid plant for many years and must be large enough for the plant to fully mature. Once the plant attaches, it will be impossible to remove the specimen and place it on another mount.

  19. Orchid, Ghost

    A central character in both is the ghost orchid ( Polyrrhiza lindenii )that is indigenous to only one place in the world, the 84,000 acre Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in southern Florida. Like most orchids the ghost orchid has beautiful flowers but is an ugly plant. The solitary white flower is borne on an arching 8-inch peduncle.

  20. Little Women: What Is the Meaning Behind the Deadly Blue Orchid? Let's

    All to Know About the Action Thriller Series Little Women: The Secrets of the Blue Orchid What is the Blue Orchid? As revealed in episode 4, the blue orchid is a rare and mysterious breed of orchids that was first found in the forests of Vietnam by soldiers.

  21. Blue Orchids: Are They Real Flowers? Do They Exist Naturally?

    However, that isn't the case. They are 100% real flowers, they just aren't naturally occurring flowers. The plant still functions as any other phalaenopsis does, requiring the same care. They need a root drench approximately once per week, bright indirect light and regular applications of fertilizer to grow successfully.

  22. The (in)famous Ghost Orchid : r/orchids

    My understanding of true ghost orchids is that people have spent decades trying to grow them in cultivation with extremely limited success. Like, you could count on one hand the number of people that managed to get them to flower. ... But the true magic of the real ghost orchid is still out there, which I kind of like. I wonder if anyone is ...

  23. Tree that lives underground among newly named plant species

    The new orchid species was found fortuitously on top of an extinct volcano on the Indonesian island of Waigeo. The botanists hoped to rediscover a blue orchid that had not been seen for 80 years ...

  24. No, aliens weren't spotted in Miami on New Year's Day

    The video shows a person walking, not extraterrestrial life, a police spokesperson said. The footage is from a Jan. 1 incident involving 50 juveniles.

  25. The Ghost Orchid (Alex Delaware, #39)

    Big thanks to both Ballantine and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review an early copy of The Ghost Orchid, by Jonathan Kellerman.Expected publication: February 6, 2024. The Ghost Orchid is the 39th book in the Alex Delaware Series, and it's an incredible addition to the series!! I think my favorite part of this series is the camaraderie that Alex and Milo share.

  26. 'Jellyfish' UFO video in Iraq is latest UAP stoking internet interest

    Video from Iraq posted this week appears to show a UFO seen flying near a U.S. operations base, putting 'Jellyfish' in unique company among UAPs.