Orchid Jungle

Seven hours into a sweaty, bloody trek through dense-cut grass, Brazilian pepper, and wax myrtle in the remote Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Mike Owen started shouting.

"Home run! I've got a home run!"

Owen, Fakahatchee's loquacious park biologist, had found a ghost orchid clinging to a pond apple tree. Highly sought after, the plants are little more than craggy roots that look like sinuous spiders when not in bloom. They are among the rarest of orchids. Perhaps the world's most beautiful and mysterious blossoms, they hang in the air like little, white psychedelic fairies, their wispy petals trailing downward. Ghost orchids bloom for only a week or two every year, usually in the summer.

Owen's boss, Dennis Giardina, approached and contemplated the roots. A wiry and intense biologist with a Sean Connery-esque beard, Giardina has been the Strand's manager for the last year and a half. He waxed philosophical over Owen's discovery: "Orchids have a consciousness you don't normally associate with animals." How is it, he asked, that orchids have colonized "every ecological niche" from water to near-tundra? What kind of plant mimics an animal's smell and appearance to propagate itself, as one species of orchid does with wasps? (Male wasps are so fooled by this orchid's act, they actually try to mate with it, spreading the plant's pollen in the process.) "When I'm out here in the woods, those are the things I think about," Giardina said. "For some reason, [the orchid] has a mystique. It penetrates the consciousness."

For the next few hours Owen intermittently sang, "I'm picking up ghost vibrations" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." He kept humming the song after sawgrass thorns gashed his lip.

Just north of the Tamiami Trail and about an hour-and-a-half drive west from Miami, Fakahatchee is North America's orchid capital, with more species of the prized flower — 44 — than anywhere else on the continent. A dense canopy of cypress, pop ash, and pond apple trees hangs over slough waterways, capturing moisture and heat in winter while providing shade in summer — a natural greenhouse for rare orchids. Hardy, or perhaps brain-addled, orchid seekers make their way here from across the planet.

The Strand — about twenty miles long and five miles wide — is an explosion of flora and fauna across swamps, islands of tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rock lands. Black bears and panthers live here. So do coral snakes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, minks, and diamondback terrapins. During the dry season, ponds are thick with alligator snouts. Seventy endangered and threatened species live here , more than in any other Florida park. This is the continent's capital for bromeliads, royal palm trees, ferns, and peperomia (a tropical climbing vine).

But it's the orchids that fascinate both Owen and 44-year-old Giardina, the first biologist to manage the Strand since it was established in 1974. Growing up near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Giardina practically lived in the woods, always exploring. "Since I was born, I've had a love of nature that's like biophilia," he said. Giardina dropped out of college in the Boston area to pursue a lucrative construction job, but soon had a jones for wilderness. Looking for warmth, in 1989 he found his way to the Caribbean National Forest, a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico, where he worked on recovery projects for native parrots, boa constrictors, and tree frogs.

Giardina's career in the wild has since taken him to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in north Florida, where he worked on a longleaf pine restoration project, and to the Apalachicola National Forest, where he helped bolster endangered red-cockaded woodpecker populations.

His orchid curiosity was born in 1996, when he moved south to work at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which borders Fakahatchee to the north. He bought Carlyle Luer's definitive guide, Native Orchids of Florida, a kind of bible for orchid hunters. Giardina started exploring, noting everything he found.

With more than 20,000 documented species, orchids are the most diverse family of plants on earth. Over millions of years they have adapted brilliantly, moving from soil to the trunks, branches and canopies of trees, rocky outcroppings, and even shallow water. Giardina expresses fascination with the intricate ways orchids interact with insects — such as the ghost orchid's only known pollinator, the giant sphinx moth — and various fungi called mychorrhizae. The flower, Giardina said, is no less than a window on nature itself, "insight into the evolution of life."

On their recent outing Giardina and Owen cut through several miles of trail-less swamp forest terrain using global positioning systems and compasses. They occasionally spotted overgrown rail beds that once brought logging trams into the dense forest. During World War II lumberjacks clear-cut the Strand's massive cypress stands for aircraft carrier decks, PT boats and mine sweepers. Logging continued for about ten years after the war, the wood going to build pickle barrels, stadium seats, and coffins.

As he hacked a path with his stainless-steel machete, Giardina told the story of his quest to turn back time for the mystical plants at Fakahatchee. Since taking over here, he has made clear his intention to reconstruct the ecological puzzle that is the Strand. To that end he wants to bring back two rare orchid species, the rat tail and Acunae's Epidendrum, both of which were last seen four decades ago.

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.

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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Rob Jordan
Contact: Rob Jordan