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This astonishing ghost orchid was first spotted last July in Florida's Corkscrew Swamp.
R.J. Wiley

A Blooming Ghost

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. 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 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.) Ghost orchids are listed as an endangered species in the Florida, and just 1,000 or so known plants remain, mostly in the remote recesses of public preserves. 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 handicapped-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 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.

But then lightning struck again. On a day in early 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. “This orchid breaks all the rules.”—Rene Ebersole

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

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