Orchid Obsessions

From conservation to pure appreciation, welcome to Miami’s wild world of orchids

Orchid Obsession. Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

What is it about orchids? Their alien-like shapes? Their deep, bold colors? Their vast varieties? It could be as simple as “their brightly colored, intricate patterns” or as complex as “how challenging they can be to grow,” explains Jason L. Downing, an orchid biologist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables. “Orchids are like living jewels representing the most beautiful and exotic aspects of nature.” 

Orchid Obsession. Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Orchid fancying has been around for almost as long as humankind, dating back to Aristotle and Confucius. But South Florida has its own rich orchid history, too, with 50 of the 200 native orchid species in the United States located in Miami-Dade and Collier counties, Downing says. “In Miami, orchids can be used in home gardens, on trees, and in landscapes.” (You can thank our relative lack of winter for that.) 

Then there’s the cultural connection. “Miami is a diverse city, and orchids play a prominent role in Latin and Caribbean cultures,” Downing adds. “With many of our garden visitors and members coming from tropical countries, I often find myself hearing orchid stories and seeing photos of someone’s abuela and her orchid collection in their backyard. So many people are already aware of orchids—another reason people have stronger connections to these plants in Miami.” 

Orchid biologist Jason L. Downing cares for and studies orchids at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which boasts one of the most impressive orchid collections in the United States. Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens
Orchid biologist Jason L. Downing cares for and studies orchids at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which boasts one of the most impressive orchid collections in the United States. Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens

But orchid fancying has a dark side, too—a long history of orchid poaching, which expanded to a lucrative black market, films, and books. “This further romanticized the orchid in American culture,” Downing says. “Many of the current orchid conservation actions in the region, such as Fairchild’s Million Orchid Project—the nation’s largest educational outreach program dedicated to orchid conservation—are addressing the impacts of this extreme poaching.” 

One South Floridian battling that darker side is Hong Liu, a professor of earth and environment at Florida International University (FIU). Liu has worked to fight orchid extinction in Southern China, uncovering a highly illegal and widespread wild orchid trade. For a year, Liu’s team monitored physical markets in the region, finding more than 1.2 million wild orchids from around 440 species on display—many plucked from places they should not have been poached from. 

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden boasts one of the most impressive orchid collections in the United States. Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens
Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens

“Vendors openly told us they heard from the people who collected the orchids in the wild that they had to travel farther than before and that they also couldn’t collect the orchids in the places that they used to, because they didn’t grow there anymore,” Liu says. 

With this fuel igniting her flame, Liu began to take action in South Florida. Armed with an $80,000 grant from the U.S. National Park Service, Liu and a team of volunteers are endeavoring to save the cigar orchid. 

Also known as the bee swarm orchid, Cowhorn orchid, or cyrtopodium punctatum, the cigar orchid is native to Florida and one of the largest and most dramatic orchids in the United States. “A mass of pseudobulbs can grow up to 1.5 meters across, and an individual inflorescence can produce more than 500 flowers,” Downing says. “Populations were once common in the greater Miami area, found in hardwood hammocks and open swamps.”  That’s not always the case now, thanks to serious poaching from orchid fanciers and hunters, plus habitat destruction.

Hong Liu, a professor at FIU, and her team wade deep into Big Cypress National Preserve in search of cigar orchids to catalogue and study. It can take four hours to reach the most remote locations. Courtesy FIU
Hong Liu, a professor at FIU, and her team wade deep into Big Cypress National Preserve in search of cigar orchids to catalogue and study. It can take four hours to reach the most remote locations. Courtesy FIU

“This orchid is rare now, due to past unregulated collection (prior to the establishment of the national park and preserves in Southern Florida) and logging in the 1940s,” Liu says. Habitat destruction and overharvesting all contributed to the cigar orchids’ endangered status. Working in Big Cypress National Preserve, Liu and her team assessed a baseline on the population, size, and status of South Florida’s remaining cigar orchids. 

“The cigar orchid is one of the rarest plants in South Florida,” Liu says. “It is also the largest and most spectacular epiphytic plant in our region.” And because of that, she and her team are committed to keeping it in existence. “If we see one plant, that’s a good day. The majority of the searches, we see one or two; that’s the norm. That’s how sparse this population is over the huge size of Big Cypress.”

Cigar orchid from Everglades National Park Florida
Cigar orchid from Everglades National Park Florida

With her researching wrapping up in May, Liu remains mum about the number of cigar orchids she and her team accounted for, stating she will release the data once she turns her final report in to the National Park Service. From there the next steps, including restoration measures, will be determined 

As for why Liu thinks people are drawn to orchids, she says, “Orchids are very diverse and many are beautiful.” They are a breathtaking sight that Liu says never fails to make her smile. 

The Million Orchid Project. Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens
Photo courtesy Fairchild Gardens

Flower Power: The Million Orchid Project

Imagine one million orchids, flowering across Miami. It’s happening, as the largest orchid educational outreach program in the United States is located right in our own backyard. The Million Orchid Project, headed by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden orchid biologist Jason L. Downing, is dedicated to conserving rare orchids in the face of threats by the black market, deforestation, and lack of regulations. Its goal is to propagate hundreds of thousands of native orchids and plant them in urban landscapes to re-establish one million plants regionally. 

South Florida has long been a habitat for orchids. But, during the late 1800s, the Florida East Coast Railroad extension south led to orchids being one of the first exploited natural resources in the state. Those beautiful flowers attached to trees were ripped off, thrown into boxcars, and shipped off to flower shops as fodder for vases. It was here that the devastation began, and Florida’s lush orchid population began to disappear. 

But what was lost can be built again. Just as the Million Orchid Project has revitalized orchids in public spaces, it has also brought a more diverse orchid population to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “Based on the enthusiasm of the Million Orchid Project and major infrastructure changes to our rainforest exhibit, we have a renewed focus on orchids at Fairchild,” Downing says. “Since 2018 over 40,000 orchids have been added to the garden collections and over 300 species/varieties.” 

The Million Orchid Project is also helping the cigar orchid find its way back, too. “The cigar orchid is considered endangered in Florida,” Downing says. “It has been successfully re-established within several canopies in urban Miami through the Million Orchid Project.” 

Blooming white and pink indoor orchid in a hanging planter close-up.Biophillia design.Urban jungle.Selective focus.

Green Thumbs

Tips and tricks for an at-home orchid collection

Drew Mullin’s expertise in orchids started by accident. However, it’s led him to a position as Miami Beach Botanical Garden’s orchid specialist. “Initially, I had no real interest in orchids,” Mullin says of his early employment at the American Orchid Society in Delray Beach. Like so many before him, however, he found himself sucked into the fascinating world of orchids. “I began to learn neat facts about orchids, especially pertaining to unique methods of pollination, which Darwin wrote an entire book on, and began to slowly become fascinated by them.” 

Today, in addition to sourcing unique orchid species that the average garden attendee has not seen and installing them across Miami Beach Botanical Garden, Mullin is also focusing on Orchids Florida, a project for those with a not-so-green-thumb who admire orchids but would rather not take matters into their own hands.

“Our company visits private and public residences and assesses which orchid genera and species would do best in the given area,” Mullin says. “Then we bring carefully customized orchids to the property monthly and mount them on trees, adding an incredibly new aesthetic and layer to the given property. A maintenance package of water and fertilizer is performed weekly, as well as pest and fungus management to ensure the healthiest of orchids to your new property.” 

If you admire the beauty of these plants but fall into the inadvertent orchid killer category, consider letting a professional like Mullin handle the work—or follow his basic tips below.

1. Keep it simple. Mullin says the easiest and most cultivated native orchid is Encyclia tampensis, a species that “thrives on neglect.”

2. Look for the light. “For home growing, the brightest light right before the plant burns is the best possible scenario for orchids to thrive in, and for flower initiation.”

3. Try attaching orchids to your trees. “There are very few trees that orchids do not thrive on. In the Everglades, most orchids prefer Pop Ash, Pond Apple, and Cypress trees.”

Orchid Fancying Fun. Photo by Drew Mullen
Photo by Drew Mullen

Fancying Fun

Hunt for orchids in the wild right here in South Florida

“Florida has the largest number of orchid species in North America, with the greatest number in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, in the central Everglades region,” says Drew Mullin, Miami Beach Botanical Garden’s orchid specialist. 

And if you’re into orchids and you’re local, you’re in luck. “Miami-Dade County has a good amount of native terrestrial species [meaning they growing on the ground],”  Mullin adds. 

Here’s what to look for. However, many wild orchids are rare or endangered and collecting them in the wild is strictly forbidden (and can land you in jail or with a hefty fine). Instead, capture them with a camera or in your mind’s eye. 

Bletia purpurea is both pink and pretty. It inhabits some of the pineland areas of Dade County. 

Calopogon tuberosus is another pink species found in Dade County’s pine scrub forests.

Epidendrum nocturnum is an epiphytic species (meaning it grows on trees), with showy, mostly white flowers. It can be found in hammocks and swamps across South Florida.

Mullin’s greatest find to date is a very rare terrestrial orchid called Eltroplectris calcarata. “This plant was mostly relegated to the Southern Everglades,” Mullin explains. “This find expanded its range, and this population was over 200 plants.” 

Orchid growing on large live oak tree

Local Love

Find your footing in Miami’s orchid fancying community

If you’re looking to learn more about orchids, then visit one of the many shows and sales in Florida. “These shows have hundreds of vendors with great prices and hard-to-get orchids,” Mullin advises. Some of the area’s biggest shows include:

March

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens “Orchids in Bloom” Show 

April

Flamingo Gardens Show 

May 

Tamiami Orchid Festival

October 

East Everglades Orchid Society’s “Fall in Love with Orchids” Show and Sale

Redland International Orchid Festival 

Want to learn more from other orchid fanciers? Mullin suggests attending a meeting of one of the many local orchid clubs. “There are various orchid societies through [the] American Orchid Society across the nation that have shows and talks,” he advises. Here are a few Miami-Dade area groups to try:

• Coral Gables: American Orchid Society 

• Davie: Flamingo Gardens Orchid Society

• Miami: South Florida Orchid Society 

Plantation: Plantation Orchid Society 

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