Ghost Orchids are extremely rare and bloom only once a year IF
conditions are right and IF their only polinator, the Giant Sphinx Moth, is able to find the few remaining plants that exist on this earth. We slogged through the swampy forest of the Fakahatchee Strand on a hot July day for the rare chance of seeing a Ghost Orchid in bloom. The stars and planets must have been aligned perfectly! Below is the story of our adventures that spectacular day.
Pat and Gary Nebel
With our cameras, walking sticks, backpacks, and bug spray in hand we make our way into the swamp, following the lead of Mike Owen, the Fakahatchee Strand on-site biologist . . . 85,000 acres and only one biologist.
We have explored the Fakahatchee swamp many times before, and know to be cautious. Walking in the swamp is difficult and we hike about half a mile, which doesn't sound like much, but in 95° heat, through moving water, climbing over and around fallen tree trunks and taking care not to trip on the tree roots under the water, it takes us about an hour and a half to walk that far. We are very thankful that we are wearing our bug shirts to protect against the swarms of hungry mosquitoes. We stop frequently along the way as Mike points out an endangered plant or a large fishing spider lurking in the crevasse of a cypress tree, waiting for an unsuspecting crayfish or small prey to pass by.
We arrive at our destination and are overwhelmed by the balance and beauty (and the delightful absence of mosquitoes). The cypress, pond apple, and pop ash trees provide a canopy protecting us from the hot sun, and there is a slight, cotton-soft breeze. One would expect swamp water to be muddy and dark, but it is just the opposite crystal clear, refreshingly cool, and sparkling with tannin and blue colors.
Then Mike points to a ghost orchid in bloom. The first one we've ever seen in bloom and it is magnificent and breathtaking! About nine feet above the water on a pop ash tree are two flowers dancing in the air. A double ghost orchid on one plant! They are each no more than three inches wide from tip to tip. Seeing this rare beauty in person is more exciting than anything we have ever experienced.
As we stand here, we can imagine how the bright white ghost orchids dance in the dark of night to attract the huge sphinx moth for pollination. The sphinx moth has a wingspan of six inches and hovers over the flowers, reaching its foot long proboscis into the long ghost orchid tube to drink the nectar. Through this process the moth bumps its head against the ghost orchid, collecting the pollen. Although the moth visits other plants, the pollen sticks firmly on its head until it gets to another ghost orchid where it is rubbed off. How amazing is that! ( We find out later that the sphinx moth pollinated these ghost orchids that same night...mere hours after we took the photos, and one of the flowers was already beginning to wither by the next day )
Mike points out several other ghost orchid plants ( not in bloom today ) and says, this is Clyde Butcher’s ghost orchid (meaning the plant Clyde photographed when it was in bloom). We feel honored to be in this place where so many famous naturalists and photographers have been before us.
Mike records the status of the plants here; we are disheartened to find a tree that has been chopped off, leaving only the bottom of the trunk. Orchid poachers have been here.
Ghost orchids, endangered plants, fishing spiders, bear paw prints in the mud, ruddy daggerwing butterflies, a plethora of pristine beauty, and the cleanest air on earth...a day we will treasure forever.
Thunder is beginning to rumble and we head back before the daily afternoon storms arrive. As we near civilization and our car, realization sets in that we are exhausted, soaking wet, and probably smell terrible. But, we are giddily happy.
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