The Ghosts of Florida

 

There are ghosts haunting the Florida Everglades. I'm not talking about the metaphysical kind either. The ghosts I am talking about come in the form of a plant. A strange, mystical, and beautiful plant at that. Growing amongst things like panthers, snakes, palms, ferns, and more mosquitoes than I care to imagine are these rare and endangered plants which have been made famous by court cases, books, and even a Hollywood movie.

If you haven't guessed it by now, I am talking about the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). In what is one of Nicolas Cage's best onscreen roles (a close second to Raising Arizona), these orchids were made famous the world over. Based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, the movie takes a lot of creative licenses with the story of these orchids.

Ghosts orchids are epiphytes. In Flordia, upwards of 80% of them can be found growing on the bark of pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). Finding them can be tricky unless you know what to look for. Ghost orchids belong to a group of orchids that have forgone leaf production. No, they are not parasites like Corallorhiza. Instead, they photosynthesize through their long, ambling roots. Pores along their length allow for gas exchange. For most of the year all you will ever see of a ghost is a tangle of roots growing among the moss and lichen on the bark of a tree. 

When a ghost decides to flower, it is easy to see where all the hype comes from. Large white flowers shoot out from the center of the roots, each one with its own twisted pair of tendrils on the lip, which are said to resemble the ghostly outline of a frog jumping through the air. Each flower is also equipped with a long nectar spur. This along with the white coloration and the fact that each flower is most fragrant at night points to the identity of the ghost orchids sole pollinator, the giant sphinx moth. It has a long proboscis that is exactly the length of that nectar spur. No other organism has what it takes to pollinate a ghost. 

The presence of the ghost orchid in southern Florida has everything to do with water. Predominantly a species of the Caribbean, ghost orchids cannot handle frost. In the Everglades, ghosts grow in and around topographical features known as sloughs. Sloughs are ditches that are filled with water for most of the year. Because water has a high specific heat, the sloughs keep the surrounding area cool in the summer and warm in the winter. When Florida experiences hard frosts, these sloughs never get below freezing. This means that these regions are essentially tropical. All these factors combine to make southern Florida the most northerly spot you will ever see a ghost (and many other plant species) growing in the continental United States. 

Sadly, ghost orchids are not doing so hot in the wild. The habitat they rely upon is disappearing at an alarming rate. If you have been to Florida in the last 100 years you can certainly understand. Over half of the Everglades have been drained and developed since 1900 with plenty more of it degraded beyond any hope of repair. Invasive species run amok for the same reasons that the native plants do so well, crowding out some of Florida's most unique flora and fauna. 

To add insult to injury, poaching of ghost orchids is serious business. Despite its difficulty in cultivation and the fact that most wild ghosts quickly die in captivity, there are those out there that will still pay insane prices to have a ghost in their collection. Nursery produced specimens are becoming more common, so with time this should alleviate some of that pressure. Still, there is no end to the senseless greed of some orchid fanatics. 

There is hope on the horizon. Researchers are starting to unlock some of the secret to ghost orchid reproduction. Plants are now being grown from seed in specialized labs. In time, this new generation of ghost orchids will be planted back into southern Florida in hopes of increasing population sizes. 

Photo Credits: Big Cypress National Preserve

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/24NiqT9

http://bit.ly/1XTqh38

http://bit.ly/21jegSg

http://bit.ly/1PZlKJu

On Orchids and Fungi

It is no secret that orchids absolutely need fungi. Fungi not only initiate germination of their nearly microscopic seeds, the mycorrhizal relationships they form supplies the fuel needed for seedling development. These mycorrhizal fungi also continue to keep adult orchids alive throughout their lifetime. In other words, without mycorrhizal fungi there are no orchids. Preserving orchids goes far beyond preserving the plant. Despite the importance of these below-ground partners, the requirements of many mycorrhizal fungi are poorly understood.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have recently shone some light on the needs of these fungi. Their findings highlight an important concept in ecology - conservation of the system, not just the organism. Their results clearly indicate that orchid conservation requires old, intact forests.

Their experiment was beautifully designed. They added seeds and host fungi to dozens of plots in both young (50 - 70 years old) and old (120-150 years old) forests. They continued to monitor the progress of the seeds over a period of 4 years. Orchid seeds only germinated in plots where their host fungi were added. This, of course, was not very surprising.

The most interesting data they collected was data on fungal performance. As it turns out, the host fungi displayed a marked preference for older forests. In fact, the fungi were 12 times more abundant in these plots. They were even growing in areas where the researchers had not added them. What's more, fungal species were more diverse in older forests.

The researchers also noted that host fungi grew better and were more diverse in plots where rotting wood was added. This is because many mycorrhizal fungi are primarily wood decomposers. Nutrients from the decomposition of this wood are then channeled to growing orchids (as well as countless other plant species) in return for carbohydrates from photosynthesis. It is a wonderful system that functions at its best in mature forests.

This research highlights the need to protect and preserve old growth forests more than ever. Replanting forests is wonderful but it may be centuries before these forests can ever support such a diversity of life. Also, this stands as a stark reminder of the importance of soil conservation. Less obvious to most is the importance of decomposition. Without dead plant material, such fungal communities would have nothing to eat. Clearing a forest of dead wood can be just as detrimental in the long run as clearing it of living trees.

Research like this is made possible by the support of organizations such as the Native North American Orchid Conservation Center. Head on over to www.indefenseofplants.com/shop and pick up an In Defense of Plants sticker. Part of the proceeds are donated to this wonderful organization, which helps support research such as this! As this research highlights: What is good for orchids is good for the ecosystem.

Further Reading:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05468.x/abstract;jsessionid=3385C965FF5BA4CB83290005DFD47FD1.f01t02