UPDATE: Just 10 days after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden reopened and was fully operational including exhibits, ongoing activities and educational programming. One of their biggest efforts, The Million Orchid Project, involves restoring imperiled native orchids to the south Florida landscape with community involvement.
The following story was written by Kenneth Setzer is Writer and Editor for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, in Coral Gables, Fla.
It began with an idea to cultivate rare and endangered native Florida orchids and reintroduce them back into the environment. The environment being south Florida, where areas like the Everglades, Fakahatchee Strand, Big Cypress Swamp, hardwood hammocks and pinelands used to be festooned with orchids sprouting from tree limbs by the thousands. Staff and volunteers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic are tackling a big project—we’re talking a million big.
The story actually begins more than a century ago, after railroad access to south Florida began to open up the area to everyone. When visitors saw the natural beauty so abundant in the subtropics, they naturally thought of ways to take it home with them, and also to exploit it. Along with cypress lumber, tree snails and bird plumes, orchids were an easy target, pulled from trees and shipped out, literally by the busting wagonload full. Natives like the butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis), cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum, above), cockleshell orchid (Prosthechea cochleata), dollar orchid (Prosthechea boothiana) and so many others are now quite difficult to find in the wild. Though most species are protected, orchid poachers to this day are caught stealing them from natural areas.
Once plentiful, the supply of orchids was soon nearly exhausted. With numbers low, a hurricane—something from which healthy populations can recover—combined with habitat loss, could lead to extinction. And while some of the orchids’ preferred trees, like live oak and mahogany, are gaining popularity as ornamental landscape and street trees, the chances that the remaining orchids will rebound on their own are slim. This is due partly to their tiny seeds: Because they are carried aloft by the wind, they don’t hold a lot of nutrition, which would add weight; therefore the seeds must find a compatible fungus to aid in their germination. And this all has to happen in the right tree, with the right amounts of light and moisture—all pretty unlikely even under the best of circumstances.
The Nursery Lab
To give species a fighting chance, why not just grow the orchids and actually place them back into trees? In nature an orchid may produce millions of seeds, with a very small fraction germinating. In the lab however, thousands may germinate from a single seedpod. Dr. Carl Lewis, Fairchild Director, did some calculating, and estimated our labs and greenhouse could produce one million orchid seedlings over five years—hence the Million Orchid Project. That is a whole lot of epiphytes.
Using established propagation techniques, Fairchild staff and volunteers grow these orchids under laboratory conditions to ensure maximum yield from each seedpod gathered, with many of the orchid species already growing and producing seedpods right here at the gardens. Inside our Hsiao Micropropagation Laboratory, trained volunteers open seedpods with sterile scalpels; there may be millions of seeds per pod, each seed no bigger than a speck of dust. Lab volunteers then sow the seeds on an agar medium infused with sugars needed to kickstart their germination—normally the job of a beneficial mycorrhizal fungus. This must all be done inside completely sterile glass flasks to ensure there is no contamination. Each one of the hundreds of growing flasks, resembling little terrariums, is placed on racks under grow lights in the lab, arranged according to their age. Then, like expectant parents, we must wait; in three to four months signs of green will appear.
The temperature, moisture levels and lighting are monitored to maintain levels appropriate for each species, though a lot of this is recently hard-won knowledge. Nurturing all of these seedlings is quite labor intensive, and performed almost exclusively by volunteers. Every two to four months after germinating, the grasslike seedlings are transplanted into new flasks, with fewer per flask each time to give them room to grow. Each transplant is performed under a laminar flow hood to keep out contaminants. After about a year to 18 months, the orchids can be removed from flasks for good and brought to Fairchild’s nursery. (The first groups out of flasks and into the greenhouse included the butterfly orchid and cowhorn orchid.) After about six more months they can go into trees.
Back Into the Community
Here the project differs from most other reintroductions of endangered plants: The orchids aren’t going back into wild places. Owing to inspiration from a similar project at Singapore Botanic Gardens, Florida’s orchids are being placed in public, urban and suburban areas. The first planting, using adhesive to glue the orchids into trees, took place in a park outside of Coral Gables City Hall on Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
Community involvement is absolutely essential to the project; attaching a million or so orchids to trees is no easy task. Fairchild’s extensive award-winning education programs have effectively connected the orchid project with local schools. In October 2013, TERRA Environmental Research Institute, a local public high school, received about 175 seeded orchid flasks to grow and monitor in the classroom, with students eventually deflasking the seedlings in their own greenhouse. The students have been very successful orchid growers, and TERRA is the first school to place orchids back into trees on their own campus. Through the Fairchild Challenge, more than 30 schools, both public and private, are so far on the list to receive their own flasks of cowhorn orchids to monitor, research and place into trees on their campuses. The new BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School in Miami will also soon foster orchid seedlings in their extensive Fairchild Tissue Culture Laboratory.
Future plans include propagation of up to eight rare native south Florida orchid species, including the cockleshell orchid and dollar orchid. More schools at all levels are lining up to grow orchids in their classrooms. The Fairchild Explorer Program for elementary schools will employ approximately 1,000 students in third through fifth grades to plant the Fairchild-cultivated terrestrial pine-pink orchid (Bletia purpurea), another rare native; they’ll be tasked with taking the orchids home or to school and reporting back on their growth. Given the combined passion for these orchids shown by volunteers, educators, students and the local community, it won’t be long before we can all simply look up to see some of our most beguiling native orchids.
Kenneth Setzer is Writer and Editor for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, in Coral Gables, Fla. To learn more and become a supporter visit the Million Orchid Project, visit.
Editor's Note: This story appeared in Horticulture magazine January/February 2015, copies of which are available at GardenersHub.com. You can also subscribe to Horticulture for more informative articles like this one.