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One Picture

Orchids
Enchanted Forest
An endangered orchid goes on a blooming binge in Florida.

This astonishing ghost orchid flowered not once, not twice, but three times last summer in Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp. The 12 blooms pictured here were spotted in July.
R.J. Wiley

On the July day last summer when Maryanne Biggar made horticultural history, she had just spied a barred owl from the lichen-spotted boardwalk at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida. Scanning the canopy with her binoculars, she thought she might get lucky and find another. But then she saw something else: a spray of ivory maybe 45 feet off the ground on the trunk of a bald cypress tree. Biggar thought to herself, it’s “gotta be a really cool bird, or maybe an orchid.” Focusing her binoculars on the cluster of white, she almost couldn’t believe what she saw—a rare ghost orchid in full bloom. “It was just so improbable,” says Biggar. “You never see them that high, and this orchid had eight or nine blooms—nobody [in recorded history] had ever counted more than three. It was unbelievable.”

And Biggar really knows what she’s talking about as the owner of an interior plant business in North Key Largo, an orchid grower, and the wife of a seasoned naturalist named John Ogden (National Audubon’s former director of ornithological research). Still, she feared no one would believe her, so she took off her shoes and left them behind to mark her place. “John was like ‘No way,’” she says. Then he looked for himself and counted 11 big showy white flowers belonging to none other than Polyrrhiza lindenii, the epiphytic star of both the 2002 Hollywood film Adaptation and its literary inspiration, the best-selling Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.

The Corkscrew Swamp ghost orchid flowered a second time in August, this time sporting 10 blooms. These orchids typically have one to two. 
R.J. Wiley

The goblin-faced ghost orchid is a botanical marvel whose beauty and rarity have long-caught the eye of greedy poachers determined to augment their collections or reap a windfall by trying to propagate the flowers, which sell for at least several hundred dollars if the plant is mature. (Experts say a mature ghost orchid clipped from the wild is as good as dead.) So dogged are the poachers that most ghost orchids within reach of a boardwalk or a few steps off trail have disappeared. Ghost orchids are listed as an endangered species in Florida, and just 1,000 or so known plants remain, mostly in the remote recesses of public preserves, like Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. On the extremely rare occasion that the public is given a chance to go on a hike to see a ghost orchid in bloom—an invitation that might include wading through a swamp in hip-deep, dark water inhabited by alligators—the location of the orchid is kept top-secret, and visitors are sometimes blindfolded so they won’t return later to pilfer the plant.

Which is precisely what made the appearance of any ghost orchid—much less the record bloomer of the century—a safe distance off the ground within sight of Corkscrew’s handicap-accessible boardwalk so special. Visitation jumped 40 percent, to  more than 3,000, despite July’s wicked humidity, says Corkscrew Sanctuary director Ed Carlson, as people came out “for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a real living ghost orchid without wading through an alligator-infested swamp.” The flowers had withered by the end of July, leaving only roots, and the sanctuary’s summer lull returned.

The ghost orchid flowered again in September—for the third time in three months—with three blooms.
R.J. Wiley

But then lightening struck again. On an early day in August, Rod Wiley, an avid 57-year-old nature photographer making the transition from a career in air conditioning, was fine-tuning his camera gear for the orchid’s expected 2008 bloom. While centering his attention on its root system, he discovered 14 fresh buds. “I was like, what the heck is this!” he says.

And that wasn’t all—after the second bloom was over, the orchid flowered again. On September 19, three more buds appeared, and they didn’t fade until just a few weeks ago. “This orchid breaks all the rules,” says Wiley. “I think it was a gift to Corkscrew.”

Mike Owen, the park biologist at the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve who has spent the last 15 years documenting and studying south Florida’s ghost orchids would agree. “The thing’s a show off,” he says. “It’s just incredible what it’s doing. It’s probably been there 30 years, maybe 40. There’s no way of knowing. But it looks extremely robust, an Olympic champion. I call it the super ghost.”

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