Fifty thousand more with long verdant leaves wait in a nearby
nursery. In the coming weeks, crews in bucket trucks, usually used
to fix power lines, will lift the fragile plants onto trees that
line south Florida's roads, hoping they will take root and
re-establish the blanket of millions of brightly colored flowers
that once covered the state.
"We want to bring back not just the orchids, but the insects that
pollinate them," said Carl Lewis, who leads the Million Orchid
Project as director of the botanic garden.
Decades of breakneck urban development and population growth all but
destroyed the region's native orchid species. The vividly colored
flowers were pulled from their perches by enthusiasts and dealers,
who shipped them north to be sold in home stores and at spring
Florida's obsession with orchids, particularly rare species, was
detailed in journalist Susan Orlean's 1998 book, "The Orchid Thief,"
which was about the arrest of a man and a group of Seminole Indians
who poached the rare Ghost Orchid in hopes of cloning it for profit.
The effort to reintroduce millions of orchids in Miami was inspired
by a similar undertaking in Singapore that began in the mid-1990s,
Of the island-country's 229 native orchids, 170 are extinct and 54
are "critically endangered," Yam Tim Wing, principal researcher at
the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said in an email.
In the last two decades, researchers have managed to reintroduce 18
species of orchids once extinct in the wild across the densely
urbanized island. The flowers include the Tiger Orchid, the largest
orchid species in the world.
"More than 10 years after they were planted through the program,
several Tiger Orchid plants flowered for the first time by the
roadside in March 2013," Yam wrote.
A handful of the Florida species that Fairchild scientists are
hoping to repopulate grow in limited numbers at the garden. The
Cigar Orchid's tendrils hang from a wide palm tree, sprouting tiny
yellow and brown flowers. A Pine Pink Orchid grows up from in
between a broad-leaf shrub, blossoming slender lavender flowers.
[to top of second column]
Scientists know little about what makes the plants thrive. The most
stunning species blossom as little as once every few years. Inside
the lab, orchids germinate for different lengths of time, sometimes
even in complete darkness.
The seeds, as small as a speck of dust, are planted in different
concentrations of nutrient-filled gels to see which stimulates the
fastest growth, helping prepare for the myriad situations the plants
face in the wild.
"We don't know how the orchids are going to respond to urban
microclimates," Lewis said. "What we need to do is get these orchids
into as many different situations as possible."
Students from 250 Miami-Dade County Public Schools will be tasked
with keeping track of the orchids in their neighborhoods. Fairchild
plans broad orchid giveaways in hopes of staving off theft, though a
certain amount is expected.
How the orchids fare could provide insight into how native species
can be reintroduced into altered environments. Fairchild is one of
34 institutions working with the Missouri-based Center for Plant
Conservation, which helps coordinate conservation efforts across the
country and studies the impact of the loss and reintroduction of
"There'll be lessons learned we'll be able to take forward to the
next species," said Kathryn Kennedy, the center's executive
(Editing by David Adams and Bernadette Baum)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.