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Ghost orchid may get protection under Endangered Species Act

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The Center for Biological Diversity/Tony Pernas
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With fewer than 1,500 "ghost orchids" left in the wild, the flower may soon be placed on the Endangered Species List

To keep the "ghost orchid" from being adored to death, federal wildlife officials said Tuesday the stealthy, rare, and beautiful flower may be added to the Endangered Species List by year's end.

“The ghost orchid has suffered a long decline in southern Florida and Cuba, in part due to its immense popularity,” said George Gann, executive director at The Institute for Regional Conservation. “Preventing extinction is the lowest conservation bar; our goal must be full recovery.”

The rare orchid seems to appear from nowhere and float in the air next to its host tree, but it’s there all the time. When not in bloom, the orchid has no leaves and grows tucked up close to its host tree, its roots camouflaged.

Summer rains and humidity often cause the flower to burst forth. At the same time it holds on to its host tree with wispy tendrils that can’t been seen from far away, which gives the orchid the appearance of floating ghost-like.

Rampant poaching of the ghost orchid has it in serious peril, and estimates of their numbers in the wild range from 750 to 1,500. Changing weather patterns, loss of wetlands, and development encroaching on swampy forests in South Florida have also contributed to the sharp decline in an already hard-to-find species.

A number of ghost orchids were probably lost during Hurricane Ian’s onslaught on South and Central Florida last month, although it's too early for an estimate. Strong hurricanes like Ian have reduced orchid numbers before.

Decision to come soon

The Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency able to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the ghost orchid, already a critically endangered flower. Under federal law, the agency has about three months to make the call.

In Florida, ghost orchids can be found in the Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and additional conservation and tribal areas in Collier, Hendry and possibly Lee counties. It is also found in Cuba.

Among the many environmental group pushing for the ghost orchid to be listed as endangered are The Institute for Regional Conservation, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

In a recently filed petition the groups argue Fish and Wildlife should also designate its critical habitat, which the environmental organizations believe to be essential to the survival and recovery of the ghost orchid.

Admired worldwide

Orchid researchers routinely travel to faraway swamps and tropical forests searching for new species, which they often name after themselves or a spouse or child.

International theft of rare or newly discovered orchids is not unheard of, as propagation of a particularly notable, new, or gorgeous flower can be both lucrative and prestigious.

Melissa Abdo, a National Parks Conservation Association regional director in Florida, said she searched for six months before spotting a ghost orchid in the wild while waist-deep in a swamp in the middle of the Everglades. The orchid was wrapped around the trunk of a tree. It captivated her.

“I understand the pull this beautiful, rare plant species has on people, but its popularity comes at a steep price. Recent upticks in ghost orchid poaching have left the species in serious peril,” Abdo said Tuesday. “It deserves nothing less than the full federal protections necessary to keep this species alive and thriving.”

Local ghost orchid popular

The largest ghost orchid ever was discovered in 2007 inside Audubon Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples.

The now-famous orchid is still alive and when it blooms, usually between June and October, the flower draws international attention among the uber-enthusiastic world of orchid lovers.

"Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary provides the perfect habitat for an unknown number of ghost orchids,” said Renee Wilson, Florida Audubon’s senior communications coordinator. “The 2.25-mile-long boardwalk provides possibly the only opportunity to see a ghost orchid in its natural setting without getting your feet wet.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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