Week 6 Blog 2: Orchid Poaching, Intern Style
Thursday was a welcome change of pace starting with a brutal morning routine at 5:00 a.m. (I’m more of a night owl myself). We met with Fakahatchee Strand’s Park Biologist Mike Owen, who gave us a guided tour of one of the sloughs. Owen started the morning with surveys that he completes on average a hundred times a year: jotting down flora, fauna, and water levels observed seasonally within the park. Owen talked to us about the importance of long-term ecological research and how there is still so much to discover about Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Freshwater sponges, different morphological types of air plants, and assorted orchids were some of amazing life that we saw that day. Owen showed he is determined to maintain the integrity of this preserve.
One aspect of the park that Owen has been tracking for the last 24 years has been native Ghost Orchid populations. The ghost orchid, or Dendrophylax lindenii, is a endangered orchid native to Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Highlighted in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, the ghost orchid is leafless, flowering epiphyte that grows on pond apple and pop ash trees in the swampy cypress forests of Florida.
A vanilla orchid, one of the many epiphytes native to Fakahatchee strand. Unfortunately we were unable to find any blooming Ghost Orchids.
Because the ghost orchid relies on photosynthetic roots as opposed to leaves, the plant remains rather inconspicuous until maturity, when it produces spectral white and lime-green flowers that seemingly float in mid-air, giving the ghost orchid its name. However, the ghost orchid is as beautiful as it is rare. It is estimated that only 2,000 of the orchids remain in the state, with the plant becoming a victim of its own popularity as poaching has increased. Unfortunately, because of the ghost orchid’s fragile temperament, moving it only results in death, meaning almost all plants removed from state or federal land die.
This issue is exactly what Owen wants to continue to bring attention to, as well as contribute his own data collection. He hopes that the 110 ghost orchids he has identified and observed in the park for the last 24 years can provide insight into their lifespan and the threat that poaching is causing them.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park serves as valuable habitat for more than just the ghost orchid however. Being Florida’s largest state park, the park also houses the endangered Florida panther, Barred owl, and other species. This was our last major trip, but it was just as beautiful as the last. And Owen’s enthusiasm made our swamp walk so much brighter.