Quest for the Ghost Orchid


The most famous of Florida’s native orchids is Polyrrhiza lindenii (a.k.a. Polyradicion or Dendrophylax lindenii).  The Ghost Orchid has a strangely shaped large white flower that seems to float in mid-air, on a long stalk arising from a hard-to-see leafless plant tightly pressed to a swamp tree.  At night, the flowers have a pleasant perfume, to attract the pollinating moth.  But then, nobody in his or her right mind would be there at night.

So picture a white flower with long streamers, floating at eye level in the dusk, viewed only by people not in their right minds, an unusual perfume spreading in the cool air, when a huge moth, its wings making an audible whir, appears hovering before the ghost.  Its tongue – half a foot long – uncoils, then arches out and down into the flower’s nectary.  A full moon is rising and the distant scream of a panther can be heard.  Alas, mosquitoes spoil the spell.

The Ghost Orchid is so famous, so frequently illustrated, so much talked about, that anyone with any interest in Florida plants soon hears of it and yearns to see it in bloom in the wild.  I see them first while a high school student.  My pal Herb, his grandpa, and I drove down the old Tamiami Trail on a camping trip.  We saw very large cypress trees with numerous huge cowhorn orchids and bromeliads in their crowns.  Herb and I swam the canal and waded to where pond apples’ dark green foliage was obvious in the center of the cypresses.  Several of the white flowers were seen at once, mixed in with eight other orchid species.  We saw dozens of the Polyrrhizas on the trees, perhaps close to a hundred in a small area.  Nowadays we hunt all day and see half a dozen plants spread over a much larger area.  If lucky, we see one of two in flower, if lucky.

In the 1960s, deep canals were cut across the county.  The water table dropped four feet immediately.  My original site was bulldozed and is now a vast open farm field. Other places dried up, too.  The orchids withered on the trees and winter cold struck, unmoderated by standing water.  Pesticides killed the pollinators.

So now we seek these wonderful flowers, hand pollinate them and hope seed eventually will be dispersed.  Perhaps future generations will see them in abundance.  At least we can hope.