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Efforts to Restore Florida's Orchids into the Wild


For more than a century, collectors and developers in Florida have stripped that state of its native orchids. Well, now scientists are working to reintroduce the plants to the swamps where they once flourished. NPR's Ari Shapiro ventured into the wilderness with them.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Larry Richardson and Scott Stewart have left their swamp buggy behind. They've left civilization behind. They're in the heart of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, hacking a trail through dense underbrush. Saw grass cuts at their arms.

(Soundbite of swishing underbrush)

SHAPIRO: Richardson, a wildlife biologist, is in the lead with the brush ax.

(Soundbite of chopping)

SHAPIRO: Every time he chops a branch off a myrtle, a piney, herbal smell comes up, like juniper or rosemary. Eventually a trail appears.

Mr. LARRY RICHARDSON (Wildlife Biologist): It's actually a very noticeable trail. We didn't make this, but we utilize it. A gator made it. So we're going to go...

(Soundbite of chopping)

Mr. RICHARD: I have yet to run into the gator, which is a good thing.

SHAPIRO: This is the dry season in the swamp, which makes the going easier. When Richardson and Stewart come out here in August, they have to slog through 18 inches of water. For more than 10 years, Richardson has been exploring the swamp, looking for orchids that have become increasingly elusive in their natural habitat. By now he knows how to find them, and suddenly there's one right in front of him.

Mr. RICHARDSON: This is the cigar orchid. It's a Cyrtopdoium punctation.

SHAPIRO: The cigar, or bee swarm orchid, grows in the sunniest patches of the swamp, so coming across one has a sort of Holy Grail effect. You go very suddenly from dense, shady undergrowth to a small clearing where sunlight streams in from above, illuminating the orchid on top of a tall stump. Covered in rippling copper and gold blooms, it looks like a museum piece on a pedestal.

Mr. SCOTT STEWART (Graduate Student, University of Florida): It's absolutely amazing to see a plant this big. I mean, I could--you couldn't put your arms around the size of this one individual plant with this many flowers on it.

SHAPIRO: University of Florida graduate student Scott Stewart has studied these orchids under microscopes in laboratories for years. This is the first time he's seen one in the wild. He says now he finally gets it.

Mr. STEWART: I see now why people get so passionate about this particular plant, why people want to save it, why people want it for their own personal collections. I see why the craze for this orchid has been so powerful.

SHAPIRO: Richardson has photographs from the 19th century showing buggies in the swamp overflowing with the plants.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Pounds and pounds of cigar orchids were removed, harvested and shipped to places all over the Eastern United States and maybe further west and used as a flowering plant, until the flowers diminished and then thrown away.

SHAPIRO: Richardson and Stewart are trying to bring them back. Stewart leans into the thick honey smell of the flowers, and he delicately lowers a pair of tweezers down the narrow throat of one of the blooms.

Mr. STEWART: I just removed this pollinium, this pollen sack, from this one individual flower.

SHAPIRO: The pollen sack that he removes is less than a millimeter wide. He carefully lowers it into another flower on the same plant.

Mr. STEWART: The pollen will grow into the ovary, actually begin to fertilize the ovules that are in there, the immature seed, and actually begin to produce seeds--hopefully.

SHAPIRO: Orchid regeneration is the ultimate goal. But even if they can get new orchids to take root, there are larger challenges here. Manmade levies and drainage ditches have taken a lot of the water out of this swamp over the last 50 years, and that makes it a much less friendly place for orchids.

Mr. STEWART: This plant hangs on because of the water that we would be standing in if this was the middle of the rainy season.

SHAPIRO: The water keeps things a little bit warmer, which, Stewart says, makes a crucial difference.

Mr. STEWART: And we're only talking a few individual degrees in temperature difference. And this plant wouldn't be here if it was that--if it was a few degrees lower.

SHAPIRO: Orchids have totally vanished from other parts of the swamp that are not as wet. Stewart and Richardson say the long-term solution to orchid reintroduction is not going to be hand-by-hand pollination; it's going to be large-scale ecosystem restoration. That's already under way in South Florida. The multimillion-dollar Everglades restoration project intends to bring historic water-flow patterns back to the Everglades. Driving back to the project headquarters, Stewart says that project could have a dramatic effect on the orchids in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. And hydrology restoration will potentially affect all of the species in this area, says Richardson.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Restoring hydrology is actually going to help our deer population, which can help our panther population, which'll help our orchid population.

SHAPIRO: In other words, Richardson says, total ecosystem recovery is the ultimate goal. The orchids are just a very attractive element of it. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.