Know Where they Come From: Ghost Orchids

ghost orchid flowerWe all know orchids as exotic, classy and high-maintenance blooms. But I’m sure you haven’t heard of ghost orchids which sway to the breeze in night, trance and mesmerize you with its ethereal beauty.  Well, fret not, even faint-hearted can enjoy the beauty of these blooms too!

There are two types of ghost orchids known:

Here we are talking about the first type, American ghost orchid or D. lindenii.

ghost orchid flowerHave a glance at it: It is the phantom of orchid family and looks nothing like its siblings. It doesn’t have chlorophyll and leaves.  It poses like a ghost whenever you try to click it. But what do these characteristics make it? A die-hard, born-to-survive miracle that makes its way through all odds and shines like a star!

The florets don’t have chlorophyll and hence, are white in nature. When they move in night, they look like creepy ghosts floating in air and thus, the name ghost orchids. The plant is also leafless and depends on the other tree to make food.  As we write this, only 2,000 orchids are remained in Florida, making it a prized possession of the planet.

ghost orchid flowerThe pond apple trees, palm trees, mild temperature, optimum shade and high humidity make South Florida the perfect habitat for them. The roots of plants do the photosynthesis and cling to the trunks trees like cypress, maples and pond apples.  The plants remain in a symbiotic relation with mycorrhizal fungus, without which they can’t survive. The fungus needs sugar from the plant and in exchange, it provides and gathers nutrients for it.  If the plants aren’t infected by the fungus in the wild, they won’t germinate and will be dead eventually.

The blooming season for the plant is June to August.  One to ten flowers are bloomed, with only one flower opening at a time.  The scent of plant resembles apple’s fragrance. The lower petal gives the illusion of jumping frog and the bracts of the flowers are almost paper-like, and thin.  The roots of the orchid cling with such intensity that not only it is difficult to tell them apart but also it makes for a display of flower floating in the middle of nowhere, eventually lending the flowers a ghost illusion.

Though, the plant doesn’t have any chlorophyll, it is an abundant source of nectar.  The pollination of the flowers is done by sphinx moth in night that is lured by nectar. Sphinx has long tongue (proboscis) that lets it reach the nectar sap located deep within. The moth goes from one plant to another in the search of nectar, and transfers the pollen as a result. But due to human intervention in the natural habitat of ghost orchids, the pollination alone doesn’t remain as a reliable and viable option for this endangered flora species.

The sphinx moth justifies Charles Darwin’s prediction of long-tongued moth species for the pollination of the Madagascar orchid Angraecum sesquipedale.

Given their unique appearance, the over-collection of the flowers by flower enthusiasts are also to be blamed for the rapid decline in their population besides hydrologic changes and habitat destruction by humans. In fact, its sightings became too rare that it was declared ‘lost and extinct’ in Britain in the year 2010.

According to the author, Peter Marren of famous book- Britain’s Rare Flowers, the flower blooms when it is the right condition, or else the root stay put underground in hibernation.

Where you can see the Ghost Orchids in Action:

Native to Florida, Bahamas and Cuba, the plant is now deemed endangered and can be seen in Big Cypress National Reserve.

However, recently, biologists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have found a new way to culture and process plants from seed to the lab. The plants, so far, have successfully acclimatized to the greenhouse environment. The ghost orchids also showed high rates of survival when planted to wild as well.  Out of 80 plants, 70 orchids survived the natural habitat at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Collier County, Florida. The biologists also found success with ghost orchids planted at the Naples Botanical Garden.

Trivia:

  • Ghost Orchids came into limelight when they featured in non-fiction book, Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. In the story, the ghost orchid flowers in the Collier Country are stolen by some thieves. Later a movie was also based on this book. K. Christi has also penned a fiction novel, ‘Ghost Orchid’, based on the ghost orchid flowers at Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
  • It is also known as palm polly and white frog orchid.
  • The Belgian plant collector Jean Jules Linder spotted the plant in Cuba in 1844 for the first time and in his honor, it is called ‘’
  • Due to its rare presence, the ghost orchids find place on the CITES Appendix II and thus, are protected by Florida State Laws.