Saving a rare and beautiful orchid could help save other endangered species in Florida.
On Oct. 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will consider granting Endangered Species Act protection to the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), a critically endangered flower. Under federal law, the agency now has until January 2023 to make a decision.
The finding was in response to a petition filed by The Institute for Regional Conservation, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association. The petition argued that the agency should add the rare native orchid to the endangered species list and designate critical habitat, which is essential to its survival and recovery.
The ghost orchid is at risk of extinction from multiple threats, including poaching, habitat loss and degradation, and the climate crisis. Its population has declined by more than 90% globally, and there were only an estimated 1,500 ghost orchid plants left in Florida in early 2022.
The ghost orchid’s current range in Florida includes the Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and additional conservation and tribal areas in Collier, Hendry and possibly Lee counties. It is also found in Cuba. While the full extent of Hurricane Ian’s impact on ghost orchids in Florida and Cuba is not yet known, strong hurricanes have reduced orchid numbers in the recent past.
The ghost orchid prefers deep swamps, high humidity, mild temperatures and dappled shade. It produces seeds only in the wettest locations. The leafless plant attaches itself by its roots high up on trees, making its white blossoms with trailing petals appear to hover in the air. The photosynthetic roots require a special type of symbiotic fungus to obtain nutrients. Their nighttime scent attracts large moths with proboscises (or mouth parts) long enough to reach pollen deep within the ghost orchid flower.
Jason Lauritesen, Chief Conservation Officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, said it is important to maintain corridors of protected areas in Florida. When an area is cut off by development, if a rare species there is damaged, it might not be able to recover.
The ghost orchid is “incredibly rare,” he explained. “This particular species is of particular interest for Florida Wildlife corridor. It is found in habitats that are undisturbed wetlands.”
Protecting the marshy areas that house ghost orchids would also protect that critical habitat for other species.
If the areas where the orchids grow are cut off from other suitable habitat, the orchids are at higher risk, he explained. For example, Florida is frequently hit by hurricanes. Heavy storms knock a lot of orchids off the trees.
Lauritesen said there is a ghost orchid at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary known as the Super Ghost because of its age and size. Discovered in July 2007, it produces many flowers each year. The Super Ghost grows in a old growth bald cypress tree about 50 feet off the ground. He said every time there is a hurricane, people call the sanctuary to find out if the Super Ghost survived. Most recently, it successfully survived Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.
“One of the realities is many of the old growth cypress forests are lost,” he explained.” Corkscrew Swamp is the largest stand of old growth bald cypress. It is host to some species diversity including rare orchids that you just don’t find abundant in other areas.
“When you have little patches of biodiversity, they are vulnerable. If there’s not a connection to another habitat near by there’s no way to recruit the species back into the environment.”
After an orchid it is pollinated, little seed pods split open and disperse the seeds, Lauritesen explained. These seeds don’t travel very far. They don’t blow for miles like dandelion seeds. They aren’t distributed by birds as some other seeds are. The orchid seeds are spread in a small area.
If you lose a patch of ghost orchids, and the area is cut off from other orchid populations, nature can’t restore the orchids, he said. If people weren’t actively planting orchids in the trees, the disconnect would prevent the orchids from recovering.
Lauritesen said the ghost orchid is very sensitive to cold. He said the flowers can only survive in wetlands with deep layers of peat that regulates temperature.
“They are really vulnerable,” he said. “We have so many species in Florida, especially in south Florida that are really dependent on these narrow little micro-climate areas. When we change the water patterns, when hydrology is impacted through roads, canals, drainage and development, you start to lose some of these species like ghost orchids.
“Looking at individual species and the value of those species and how vulnerable those species are, it creates a strong argument for preserving the corridor,” he added. He said he hopes this will inspire community leaders and the public to be more focused on long term planning and mitigating the impacts of growth.
Most of the old growth cypress in the United States has already been lost. “After World War II, we were using a lot of our cypress domestically, and we started to ship it to Europe,” he explained. In the 1940s, they had already logged out most of the easily accessibility cypress. The only cypress remaining was in the Fakahatchee Strand and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, The peat was so deep it was not possible to use heavy equipment there, So they started building tram roads and they logged the Fakahatchee.
The conservation organizations will remain closely engaged in the listing process to support the strongest protections under the Endangered Species Act to ensure the ghost orchid recovers.
“We are grateful that the Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that our petition has merit and will move forward with the process of review for federal listing,” said George Gann, executive director at The Institute for Regional Conservation. “The ghost orchid has suffered a long decline in southern Florida and Cuba, in part due to its immense popularity, and federal protection will help us not only to save this icon of beauty from extinction but allow for recovery work to commence. Preventing extinction is the lowest conservation bar; our goal must be full recovery.”
“The ghost orchid is a testament to how biodiversity can have a monumental impact on our collective spirit and imagination,” said Elise Bennett, deputy Florida director and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Its rare and cryptic beauty has captivated authors, photographers and filmmakers alike. I really hope federal officials make haste and protect this gorgeous specter of our swamps before it’s too late.”
“I still remember the first time I saw a ghost orchid. I was waist-deep in a swamp in the heart of the Everglades and spotted one woven around a tree trunk. I had spent six months searching, while researching the plant life throughout the Glades. It was a moment I will never forget,” said Melissa Abdo, Ph.D., Sun Coast Regional Director for The National Parks Conservation Association. “I understand the pull this beautiful, rare plant species has on people, but its popularity comes at a steep price. Recent up-ticks in ghost orchid poaching have left the species in serious peril, with fewer than 750 mature orchids left in the wild. Climate change, draining of wetlands, and rampant development have also contributed to this sharp decline in an already hard-to-find species. That is why I am relieved that the Fish and Wildlife Service has chosen to consider listing the ghost orchid under the federal Endangered Species Act. It deserves nothing less than the full federal protections necessary to keep this species alive and thriving.”