Friday, July 20, 2007

Wildwood Flower (A. P. Carter)

My friend Maryanne was on the front page of the Miami Herald two days ago... or at least the rare orchid she discovered was - how f*cking cool is that? (rhetorical question... :-)

"Rare ghost orchids found near Naples
A mysterious plant found in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples was found to be the exceedingly rare ghost orchid.

Recently a woman took a walk in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and discovered a ghost orchid in full bloom.

This was not an everyday or even an every-year occurance. There are not many ghost orchids on the planet. Fewer than 1,000 are known to be growing wild, and their locations are, by and large, kept secret by the botanists who study them.

This is because ghost orchids have a habit of walking off in the bags and baskets of orchid enthusiasts. They can be sources of profit or private enjoyment.

Maryanne Biggar wanted neither. She was looking for owls.

In the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 20 miles outside of Naples, she walked down a boardwalk that winds through sawgrass marsh and some of the state's last remaining old-growth cypress forest. There she stopped to scan the tree canopy.

Owl-spotting may well be a more rewarding activity than ghost orchid-spotting, because ghost orchids are virtually invisible except when they flower. They do this infrequently and irregularly.

They are fiendishly difficult to cultivate, and occur naturally only in Southwest Florida and Cuba. Even here they are hard to find. While researching The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean spent months tramping the backcountry and didn't see a single one.

On this particular afternoon Biggar spotted a gray-brown barred owl with its head tucked into its breast, napping. And something else -- a spray of brilliant white on a bald cypress tree 150 feet distant, perhaps 60 feet high on the trunk.

The spray turned out to be nine flowers, each as big as a child's palm, with narrow petals and a broad lip from which descended two long tapered tendrils. The flowers seemed to float in space, not unlike hovering ghosts.

Biggar, who runs a gardening business in Homestead, knows her orchids better than most. But her walking companions -- husband John Ogden, a chief scientist at the South Florida Water Management District in charge of Everglades restoration, and their friends Jean McCollom and Mike Duever -- are all research biologists.

''I just knew they would all pooh-pooh it,'' Biggar said.

It was, after all, improbable. A series of frosts in the late 1980s and early 1990s killed many of the Corkscrew orchids. Some survivors were stolen by enthusiasts.

And Mike Owen, a botanist from the nearby Fakahatchee Strand who may know more about ghost orchids than any other man alive (he was featured in Orlean's book, and the character based on him meets an untimely death in the movie Adaptation), has said he's never seen a ghost orchid taller than 23 feet tall, or with more than three flowers.

That any ghost orchid exists at all anywhere on the planet is improbable. It is the compulsive gambler of the plant kingdom, evolutionarily speaking. ''Every one has gone through a gantlet of improbabilities,'' Owen said.

A ghost orchid seed will likely die if it's not infected by a particular strain of beneficial fungus. It will likely die if there's not enough peat to nourish its giant cypress host. It will likely die if there's not enough water in the slough below to saturate the air and mediate temperature swings. It will likely die if the tree canopy isn't dense enough to shelter it from the wind and desiccating sun.

Even if the ghost orchid has covered all these very long bets, it can be pollinated only by a giant moth that flies only at night.

''The survival of the ghost orchid as a species is completely dependent, as far as we know, on one species of moth, the giant sphinx,'' Owen said.

The giant sphinx moth feeds only on two kinds of flowers, moon flowers and ghost orchids, Owen said. 'It has a six-inch wingspan and a six-inch proboscis. It's sometimes dubbed `the flying tongue' . . . and it's flying around the swamp at night trying to detect these flowers.''

The flowers emit what Owen unscientifically but poetically dubbed an ''odoriferous chum slick,'' stronger at night, to attract the giant sphinx moth to their nectar. It sticks its tongue deep inside the flower to reach the nectar, picking up a packet of pollen in process, and then it ``sips up all that high energy sugar that fuels its flight to the next flower, like jet fuel.''

Owen has cataloged more than 300 ghost orchids at the Fakahatchee Strand; around 600 are in Big Cypress and about 60 are in the Panther Preserve. Nobody knows how many are growing in the smaller Corkscrew Swamp.

So everything had to go exactly according to plan to cause this particular ghost orchid to come into being 30 to 50 years ago (judging by the extensive root system); and at some more recent point a view-obstructing cypress branch had to fall; and Biggar had to visit during a particular two-week span of an irregular blooming cycle, so a woman on a walk on a rainy Saturday afternoon could see a flower. The word for this is serendipity.

''If you spend a lot of time in the woods, you kind of know what's there, what to expect,'' Biggar said. ``You're looking for that little blip that's out of the ordinary.''

She stared at it for a while. Then -- scared of losing the flower for the forest -- ``I took my shoes off and pointed them in a line with where I was looking.''

When she told McCollom, the scientist did not pooh-pooh. ''She was more than ready to believe,'' Biggar said.

John Ogden looked at his wife's face. ''She had this look -- real excitement. Amazement,'' he said. ``And she had that I told you so look. She's good.''

They went back to McCollom's and Duever's house and celebrated with cocktails. E-mails went out that afternoon to South Florida's small but hardy band of wild orchid enthusiasts. The Fort Myers News-Press reported the story; The AP picked it up. The blogs followed.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary volunteers had trained a telescope on the flowers so that visitors could see them in perfect detail. The number of visitors -- which drops during the sweltering summer months -- has surged.

Sanctuary manager Ed Carlson noted that the ghost orchid isn't the only pretty flower in the Swamp -- ''Our hibiscus are vermilion and big as dinner plates, our sunflowers are like gold,'' he said -- but even he seemed a bit awed.

''It's unprecedented,'' Carlson said. ``I don't know a better word for it.''

More maddened enthusiasts are on the way, rumored to be flying in from all over. The flowers, up for now, will drop off over the next week.

Carlson is welcoming everybody, but he took the precaution of moving infrared cameras normally used to detect panthers into a protective perimeter around the flower's host tree. "

Above the snow, a single maple holding forth
its dying flame. Among the feats of Nature:
the wild
greening from dry bulb, sour alchemy of rot, a rusty
handprint of lichen;

the eager
space-seeking species springing up after fire,
as though they took no lesson from destruction
but to begin again, twice as joyful.

QUOTE: "May our heart's garden of awakening bloom with hundreds of flowers." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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