For the past five years, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota has been part of a pioneering effort to return rare bromeliads and orchids to the Everglades. Several botanists waded into the thickets of Everglades National Park to bring endangered plants back into the wild.
It's just after sunrise in the middle of the Everglades National Park. It's not the stereotypical river of grass that you might think. There are some raised islands in it - basically two feet above sea level - where plants such as oaks, mahogany, banyan trees and such have thrived. And this is where many of the rare orchids have been taken. So their mission coming down this trail is to search for the rare mule ear orchid.
"This is called a mule ear orchid. Trichocentrum undulatum, " says Bruce Holst.
Bruce is the kind of guy you want with you in a trip to a place like the Everglades. He can recite the Latin name of a tree while telling you if its berries are edible - or poisonous. Holst has traveled two hundred miles south from Sarasota, where he's director of botany at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. For several years, they've grown rare epiphytes - or air plants - such as orchids and ferns and transplanted them back into the wild. Now, they're checking up to see if they survived.
"This is extremely rare in the United States," he says. "Other than this population that we've re-established here, there are about 500 plants in that other area. One of the park's biologists did a count a couple of years back."
When asked if he is afraid that people are going to come in here and take the orchids, like they did in the past, Holst says, "Absolutely. We think it's a very real possibility. We think we've put enough out that are far off the trail and high enough up in the trees - it'll be very difficult - someone will really have to make a concerted effort. They'll be very conspicuous doing so. But we really felt that some of them be visible as people are hiking around here. I would just love to see the expressions on someone's face as they walk through and see a colony of these in bloom. It would just be just wonderful."
The beauty of rare orchids has been their undoing in heavily-trafficked parts of Everglades National Park. Jimi Sadle is the national park's botanist.
"The main reason we think for the extirpation in this particular hammock is poaching," he says. "This area was frequently accessed, and it was the center of Royal Palm State Park. And there were a lot of visitors here. And at the time, a lot of people viewed orchids as something that could be collected and brought home. I don't know if it was necessarily against any regulations at the time when the initial collecting happened."
The pressure from outlaw collectors seems to have eased. On the way into the park, I saw a dozen roadside nurseries bursting with bromeliads. But Sadle says it only takes one collector to decimate a population.
There's someone trudging through this dense jungle with us who's used to these conditions. After all, Carlton Ward Jr. hiked and kayaked a thousand miles through the heart of Florida earlier this year. His photographs illustrating the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition are on display at Selby Gardens - and he couldn't resist grabbing his camera once again to document the action.
"Anyone can sit there and enjoy the beauty and the bloom of an orchid," Ward says. "But it's so amazing to go in with some of the people who have actually discovered and named some of these species and know the Latin and have spent many years trying to protect and understand - and in this case, reintroduce these rare species to their native habitats."
The second part of our journey is a trip into a tropical hardwood swamp. It's a dense thicket of gumbo limbo, vines, and the aptly-named Poisonwood tree. Washing with soap and water afterward is heartily recommended.
Holst has to climb down into several deep holes in the hammock to reach where he had planted ferns and bromeliads. These are basically miniature sinkholes - the acidic water caused by decaying vegetation eats away at the limestone rock, creating deep pools whose sloping sides are ideal for these shade-loving plants. I ask him for a report card on their mission.
"Well, we're extremely pleased with the success of the orchid. Those plants are rooting in, they're growing, they're doing fantastic," he says. "The Fragant Maidenhair fern is not doing very well. The original two plants are surviving - perhaps even growing - and the ones that we've put out are not doing very well. Only two out of 24 are surviving. And the Florida Holly Fern is looking great. It's only been out there for three months, but five of the six plants are found and doing very well.
It's a nice ending, he says, for five year's work - "We're very pleased. Very pleased."
You can view some of Carlton Ward's photos of the almost mythic Ghost Orchid - so named for its ghostly white bloom - at Selby Gardens. He recently finished up a photographic journey to capture the rare orchid in a remote swath of the Fakahatchee Strand near Naples. Tonight, Ward will lead several "walk and talks" at the Sarasota Gardens to take viewers through his journey.