Orchid Jungle

One man's search to restore rare blossoms to their historic Florida home

The two plants are among a relatively small number of species that have disappeared from the area since a comprehensive survey 45 years ago by Luer. While the loss of the acunae and rat tail may not have damaged the overall ecosystem, Giardina sees them as conspicuously blank pages in the Strand's story.

He wants his legacy to be that of a restorer. While neither Acunae's Epidendrum nor the rat tail orchid is as classically beautiful as the ghost orchid, each has its own attraction, Giardina said. He acknowledged the two species he's hunting do not have big, showy flowers, but, he added, "They're subtly beautiful, delicate, interesting and enigmatic."

Tree-clinging orchids that once thrived in small numbers above the Fakahatchee's deep water sloughs, acunae have a few yellow flowers that hang from a strand, while the rat tail blooms with many tiny flowers the color of lobster meat.

Two ghost orchid flowers in bloom
Dennis Giardina
Two ghost orchid flowers in bloom

Because the original seedlings for the Strand's acunae and rat tail orchids likely traveled by wind from Cuba, Giardina is looking to that island nation for help. Working in cooperation with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, he's searching for a seed source in the land of Fidel. Especially considering Fakahatchee's proximity to Miami, the home of Cuban exile politics, Giardina is acutely aware of the potential for controversy. "It's delicate," he said.

Exploratory phone calls and e-mails sent by botanical garden staff and Strand supporters have led nowhere so far, said Matt Richards, an orchid horticulturist at the Atlanta garden. Obtaining seeds from Cuba may require sending a search party, Richards acknowledged. "We're assuming it's not going to be an easy task," he said.

During the hike that netted a ghost orchid sighting, Giardina and Owen spotted eleven different orchid species, but no rat tail or acunae. Toward the end of the all-day trek, shafts of sunlight began to lean heavily on the thick forest, and Giardina pushed on. Too tired to talk, he willed his sore muscles forward, hoping the swamp buggy he had parked twelve hours earlier was close by. The last few hundred yards were slow going. Giardina warned those behind him to keep their distance. He was tired, he said, and didn't know if he could keep a tight grip on his machete, as he had all day. There would be no more looking around, no more scanning tree trunks for telltale roots.

If the acunae or rat tail orchids were anywhere along the route back, Giardina wasn't going to find them.

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