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'Million Orchid' project to revive native Florida flowers

A Pine Pink Orchid (Bletia purpurea) is seen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson
A Pine Pink Orchid (Bletia purpurea) is seen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Inside a small bright lab, nestled behind sprawling Banyan trees in Miami's Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, scientists and volunteers tend to tens of thousands of just-germinated orchids tucked in glass bottles.

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 farmer's markets.

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.

ENDANGERED

The effort to reintroduce millions of orchids in Miami was inspired by a similar undertaking in Singapore that began in the mid-1990s, Lewis said.

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 re-introduce 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.

ENIGMATIC

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 native species.

"There'll be lessons learned we'll be able to take forward to the next species," said Kathryn Kennedy, the center's executive director.

(Editing by David Adams and Bernadette Baum)

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