It is 9 a.m., and I am a chasing a ghost, a slim, pale seductress that vanishes against the dappled canopy of pop ash and cypress within the wilds of the Fakahatchee Strand. Navigation is tactile. You feel the bottom of the swamp with your feet. You don’t grab the trees, for fear you might come up with a handful of ants, or disturb a dormant orchid. Leading the way deep into Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is Park Biologist Mike Owen, whose gesticulations and outbursts of glee echo actor Jim Carrey playing Ace Ventura.
“Most folks come out here once in their lifetime, take a photo, and go home,” says Mike, as he slips between the branches of pop ash trees rising from the swamp floor. “But I have the luxury of being able to come out and document these beauties every day.” He stops to point out a young ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). It has no leaves, which makes it tough to spot when it is not in bloom. It clings like a sprawl of inchworms hugging the crisp black bark of the pop ash. “Good!”
He pulls out his yellow wire-bound notebook and starts scribbling. He lifts up a walking stick that’s a section of PVC pine graduated so he can measure the distance from the swamp floor to the base of the orchid, within a quarter of an inch. All around us are the haunting stumps of giant cypress logged more than a half century ago, and the growing hum of mosquitoes. The longer we stand still, the more we slap at them.
“Oh, look, here’s the one I was looking for!” Mike points to one a few feet higher on the next trunk. “Now this one’s bloomed before. It seems like they take a couple or three years on sabbatical. They can’t afford the luxury of reproduction every year.” At the tips of each root, he notes nice shiny new growth. “That’s encouraging.” It goes down as a “4” on his scale of 1 to 4 for ghost orchid health, from “dead” to “stressed” to “okay” to the state of this plant, “robust.”
“You can look at two thousand trees in here and not find what you’re looking for,” says Mike, but he’s trod “the Amazon of America” long enough to have a feel for the plants he keeps track of. We come to a cluster of three on a pond apple, the longest to be monitored, “a grandmother, mother, and baby,” Mike says. We assist with the measurements. “On my watch, none of them has bloomed.”
The Fakahatchee Strand is the largest strand swamp in the world. It is 19 miles long, three to five miles wide, and despite its shallow depth, could be called “the Grand Canyon of the Everglades,” a gigantic valley filled with spongy, rain-soaked peat. Between May and October, it receives three-quarters of its annual rainfall, which slowly flows on a southwesterly course towards the Gulf of Mexico. There are 5,000-7,000 royal palms within the strand, the largest remaining collection in Florida. At 85,000 acres, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is the biggest state preserve in Florida and home to 44 species of orchids have been found here, giving the park the nickname the “orchid capital of the United States.” There are only 500 or so ghost orchids in Southwest Florida, of which 300 are within the strand. To date, Mike has recorded no more than 21 blooms in any given year.
For two hours, we follow him into a wilderness that I have my doubts I could find my way back out of. We struggle through shoulder-high grasses. There is no beaten path; normally, there is much more water here than we see today. A branch tears my hat off, and I brush into a spider web. It’s the middle of summer, and it’s getting hotter by the minute. We’ve yet to see anything in bloom. Then the swamp opens up into a clearing around a pond. “There it is!”
Twenty feet over our heads dangles the leaping frog, the dancing ballerina, the ghost. It easily vanishes against the dappled tree canopy. Fortunately, there is a second one nearby. It is not so far out of reach. Its lower tips are pinkish-brown, the rare bloom fading after a week. “Every bloom is unique, like a snowflake,” Mike says. It’s smaller than I expect, but still breathtaking. We stand and marvel. I breathe deeply, hoping to catch of whiff of the scent that attracts the giant sphinx moth as a pollinator. It is a sultry seductress of the swamp, and as we drink in its beauty, Mike’s smile is that of a proud father.
This essay first appeared in my book “Exploring Florida’s Botanical Wonders” and was based on a guided research trip taken in the summer of 2007. Since then, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park no longer offers ghost orchid walks to the public, to better keep the orchids safe from prying fingers. They do not survive when taken from the wild. Current estimates of ghost orchids in Florida run from 1,000-3,000 plants scattered throughout remote strands in the Big Cypress Swamp, according to orchid expert Prem Subrahmanyam.
For your own ghost orchid sighting, join the Friends of Fakahatchee on their swamp walks – where you might see a bloom – or visit Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to see the “super ghost,” a multi-flowered ghost orchid which usually blooms in July.