Lab project aims to restore rare orchids to trees lining suburban Miami's streets and parks

Jennifer Kay / The Associated Press
June 16, 2014 10:20 AM

In this Wednesday, June 4, 2014 photo, rows of glass bottles containing orchid seedlings are shown as part of the Million Orchid Project at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla. The project aims to plant endangered native Florida orchids throughout public spaces in South Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Orchid enthusiasts may soon no longer have to traipse through Florida's swamps in search of rare blooms — they'll just have to look up as they walk down busy sidewalks.

Orchids growing in glass bottles at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden will be transplanted into hardwood trees lining suburban Miami's streets, parks and school campuses.

Five orchid species native to Florida but now rare due to development and over-collection are being cultivated in a lab and will be moved into urban trees over the next five years. Researchers hope the project will revive vanishing native plant populations, attract migrating birds and pollinators and complement efforts to restore orchids in Florida's wild landscapes.

Fairchild's program is based on a project at Singapore Botanic Gardens that found that lab-grown orchids grew well on city trees and reproduced naturally even in densely populated areas. Similar urban conservation initiatives have taken root in major metropolitan areas such as New York.

At Fairchild, countless orchids in various stages of green, early growth fill about 1,500 bottles on shelves lit by white or blue and red lights.

Orchids produce millions of dust-like seeds but never would be this productive in the wild, Fairchild Director Carl Lewis said.

The project is cultivating five species: the Florida butterfly orchid, the cigar or cowhorn orchid, the dollar orchid, the clamshell orchid and the pine pink orchid.

Miami's growth and suburban sprawl stripped the landscape of the trees where these orchids thrived. Orchids also were easy targets for people who would rip them down and ship them north as houseplants.

Municipal landscaping since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992 has restored many hardwood trees, offering the opportunity to replant orchids in a familiar environment, Lewis said.

Volunteers oversee the lab work, and Fairchild partnered with arborists and schools in Miami-Dade County on the project. About 150 orchids were transplanted into trees near Coral Gables City Hall in April, and in July orchids grown in flasks at a high school will be scattered among the campus' trees. Lewis' goal is to transplant a million orchids over a five-year period.

Public fascination with Florida's orchids sometimes breaches into obsession, as chronicled in the book "The Orchid Thief," and Lewis acknowledges that some theft of the transplants may be inevitable.

"A million orchids, we think, will satisfy any demand that exists out there," he said.

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Online:

Million Orchid Project: http://www.fairchildgarden.org/The-Million-Orchid-Campaign/

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Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay.

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