Researchers at a South Florida botanic garden want to return the state's orchids to their former glory.
When railroads first came to Florida in the late 1800s, the plants were among the first resources exploited. Millions of orchids were plucked and sent north as potted plants. Now, after more than a century of logging and harvesting, it's rare to find them growing in the wild here.
But if researchers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden succeed with their Million Orchid Project, the flowers will soon bloom amid the hustle and bustle of city life.
"The basic concept is to get these orchids out into the community," says Carl Lewis, Fairchild's director. "We're trying to get them into some of the most population-dense urban areas here in South Florida."
Fairchild is starting with three orchid species that it's cultivating from seeds in the Botanic Garden's micropropagation lab.
Volunteers include scientists and others with lab experience who grow the orchids from seeds no bigger than a speck. There are several racks full of bottles, each containing dozens of tiny orchids.
The flowers start out as green blotches. Transferring them from one container to another as they grow is a bit like building a ship in a bottle. Volunteers use forceps to move each little shoot, one by one.
As they grow, the orchids are moved to a greenhouse. And when they're large enough — beginning this spring — volunteers, arborists and others will begin putting them into trees throughout Miami.
Lewis says the Million Orchid Project is part of a new direction in conservation, working not just in natural areas but where people live. He got the idea from a similar orchid project in Singapore.
Some of the orchids won't survive, he says; others may be taken. But he's confident the project will re-establish some of Florida's most beautiful native plants back into the wild.
Lewis says labs have done this for other endangered plants, too.
"A classic example is the Venus flytrap that was hunted almost to extinction from the bogs of North Carolina," he says. "But now, there are micropropagation labs producing them by the millions. You can buy them in supermarkets. No one has the incentive to go back and steal them from the wild. So the populations are actually recovering."
A million native plants established in local trees, Lewis hopes, will begin to do something similar for Florida's native orchids.