Photo: Erik KellarBiologist Mike Owen wants to inform the public about the Fakahatchee Strand but has to be careful what he shares.
Ghost story: Protecting the rare ghost orchid
A rare plant draws plenty of visitors to a state park in southwest Florida, including some who don't want to just look at it.
In March 2006, a group of visitors sloshed through the tannin-stained water of the Fakahatchee Strand, an 85,000-acre piece of Collier County wilderness that’s Florida’s largest — and wildest — state park.
Mike Owen, a biologist at the park who was leading the group on a tour, knew a ghost orchid grew on a nearby tree, but he planned on keeping the information to himself. The visitors had already seen one of the rare orchids earlier during their tour — and Owen thought one was enough.
A woman in the group, however, had an uncanny eye for spotting ghosts, even an unflowering one that looked like a few strands of green spaghetti wrapped around the branch of a pop ash tree. The woman, Donna Glann-Smyth, pointed at the small tangle of roots and started asking questions.
“I was trying to pretend I didn’t see anything,” Owen says.
Glann-Smyth had put Owen in a tough spot.
It was in his nature to share everything he could about the park — the alligators and the snakes, the black bears, the Florida panthers, the gently flowing sloughs, the bald cypress trees, the royal palms, the rare bromeliads and the 48 varieties of native orchids, which account for nearly one-quarter of all the native orchid species in North America. But it’s also Owen’s job to conserve and protect the park and its contents, which, sadly for him, means that the fewer people who know where the ghosts are, the better.
“I can’t share the locations of ghost orchids any more, especially the locations of ones that produce flowers,” he says. “I wish I could, but we don’t know if someone’s going to come back and take one.”
The ghost is particularly vulnerable, even among the Strand’s other rare orchids. First, there aren’t many — fewer than 400 within the park, with another several hundred in an adjacent panther preserve and in the Big Cypress and Corkscrew swamps nearby. The population is falling, due to theft and natural causes, including host trees falling into the swamp.
The ghost orchid also reproduces slowly. Its single known pollinator, the giant sphinx moth, is the only insect in North America that has a big enough proboscis — incredibly, up to six inches long — to pollinate a ghost orchid.
The biggest threat to the ghosts, however, is their own flowers.
Owen, who began researching ghost orchids when he went to work at the Fakahatchee in 1993, says it can take between 16 and 20 years for a ghost orchid to bloom for the first time in the wild — and it may only bloom once.
The ghost orchid is at greatest risk when it blooms or has a bud indicating that a bloom is near. The white, almost translucent flower is delicate and strangely beautiful, like a ballerina dancing in mid-air.
“The ghost orchid is like Cinderella,” Owen says. “When it blooms, it steals the ball.”
Most park visitors are happy just to get a glimpse of a ghost, but others want to steal it, either to keep for themselves or to sell to collectors or shady plant breeders. It’s hard to determine what a poached wild ghost orchid sells for on the underground market, although the fine for getting caught stealing one — $500 — doesn’t deter thefts.
“We have these cameras in the park that record wildlife,” says Patrick Higgins, vice president of the Friends of Fakahatchee, a non-profit group that supports the park with both labor and money. “But we see more than wildlife on those cameras. We have recorded people carrying out big plastic garbage bags full of plant material.”
Over the last 10 years, Owen has kept tabs on 120 ghosts in the park, checking them frequently and recording their condition. So far, nine have been poached.
So, as much as Owen might like to share in the excitement of a group encountering a ghost orchid in the wild, he steers visitors the other way these days.
During that tour in 2006, after repeated questions from the keen-eyed Glann-Smyth, Owen conceded that, yes, those green roots wrapped around the branch were indeed a ghost orchid, one that had yet to bloom.
Glann-Smyth, as it turned out, was a biologist who lived across the state in Melbourne, and after that swamp walk, Owen kept in touch with her. Their friendship became a courtship that included many other walks through the Fakahatchee, but they always returned to visit the orchid she had noticed in 2006. It bloomed for the first time the following year, and then six more times through 2012.
When Owen and Glann-Smyth decided to get married, they planned a June 1, 2013, wedding ceremony in the swamp — beneath the ghost orchid she had spotted.
Three months before the ceremony, though, the orchid was gone, poached like the others.