Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow: Ghost Orchid Information And Facts

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A white ghost orchid flower blooming in the wild

What is a ghost orchid, and where do ghost orchids grow? This rare orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii , is found primarily in humid, marshy areas of Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida. Ghost orchid plants are also known as white frog orchids, thanks to the frog-like shape of the odd-looking ghost orchid flowers. Read on for more ghost orchid information.

Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow?

With the exception of a handful of people, nobody knows exactly where ghost orchid plants grow. The high level of secretiveness is to protect the plants from poachers who attempt to remove them from their natural environment. Like most wild orchids in the United States, ghost orchid plants are also threatened by loss of pollinators , pesticides, and climate change .

About Ghost Orchid Plants

Blooms have a white, other-worldly appearance that lends a mysterious quality to ghost orchid flowers. The plants, which lack foliage, look like they’re suspended in air as they attach themselves to tree trunks via a few roots.

Their sweet nighttime scent attracts giant sphinx moths that pollinate the plants with their proboscis – long enough to reach pollen hidden deep within the ghost orchid flower.

Experts at University of Florida Extension estimate that there are only about 2,000 ghost orchid plants growing wild in Florida, although recent data suggests there may be significantly more.

Growing ghost orchid flowers at home is nearly impossible, as it’s extremely difficult to provide the plant’s very particular growing requirements. People who manage to remove an orchid from its environment are usually disappointed because ghost orchid plants almost always die in captivity.

Fortunately, botanists , working hard to protect these endangered plants , are making great progress in devising sophisticated means of seed germination. While you may not be able to grow these orchid plants now, perhaps one day in the future it will be possible. Until then, it’s best to enjoy these interesting specimens as nature intended – within their natural habitat, wherever that is, however, still remains a mystery.

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11 Enchanting Quirks of the Rare Ghost Orchid

facts about a ghost orchid

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The ghost orchid is aptly named for a few reasons. Its white flowers have a vaguely spectral appearance, and they seem to hover in the forest due to an illusion created by the leafless plant. This effect also makes the rare orchid even harder to find, especially outside the brief, unpredictable window when it blooms in summer.

Unfortunately, the ghost orchid is also at risk of living up to its name in another way. It's an endangered species, limited to scattered populations in Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida, where it exists in just three southwestern counties.

It inhabits remote swamp forests and small wooded islands, yet still faces an array of threats from humans, namely poaching, climate change, loss of pollinators, and loss of habitat.

The species has long enchanted anyone lucky enough to see it, and we're still learning its secrets—including new research that challenges what we thought we knew about its pollinators.

In honor of the ghost orchid's haunting mystique, and of scientists' quest to save it, here's a closer look at this unique floral phantom.

1. It only blooms once a year for a few weeks—or not at all

The ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ) blooms between June and August, typically just once per year for a period of about one or two weeks. Or it might just take the year off. As few as 10% of ghost orchids may bloom in a given year, and of those, as few as 10% may be pollinated.

2. It has scales instead of leaves

The ghost orchid is what's known as a "leafless" orchid, since its leaves have been reduced to scales and mature plants seem to lack foliage.

It also has a reduced stem, which is often hard to see even if you somehow find a ghost orchid in the wild.

3. It's mostly made of roots

In lieu of leaves and a stem, the ghost orchid plant consists mostly of roots, which grow on a tree's bark without need for the soil below. That's because the ghost orchid is an epiphyte , a term for plants that grow not in soil, but on trees and other hosts sort of like a parasite.

Unlike parasites, epiphytes don't take nutrients from their hosts and don't necessarily cause any trouble for them. They tend to grow on the main trunk or large boughs of a living tree, often several feet off the ground, although they can be located much higher up in the canopy.

4. Its roots act like leaves

Doug Goldman / USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The ghost orchid may not have leaves to speak of, but that doesn't mean it has given up on photosynthesis. Although its roots already have their hands full—they anchor the orchid onto its tree, while also taking in water and nutrients—they fill this role, too.

The roots contain the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis, rendering leaves unnecessary. The roots also feature small white marks known as pneumatodes, which perform the gas exchange needed for respiration and photosynthesis.

When the orchid isn't in bloom, the mass of roots looks like "unremarkable bits of green linguine," as National Geographic described them.

5. Its flowers look like they're floating in the forest

Josh O'Connor / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The greenish roots blend in with the bark of trees where ghost orchids grow, making them well-camouflaged when they aren't blooming, especially in the dimly lit understory.

During the brief window when they do bloom, the flower grows on a thin spike extending outward from the roots. The roots act like a puppeteer dressed to match the background, dangling the flower as if it's floating freely in the forest.

Although ghost orchid is undoubtedly its coolest name, the plant is also known as "palm polly" or the "white frog orchid," a reference to the pair of long, lateral tendrils from its lower petal that vaguely resemble the hind legs of a frog.

6. It smells kind of like apples, especially in the morning

At an undisclosed location in South Florida, about 13 ghost orchids abruptly bloomed in the summer of 2009, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study the species in the wild. That included a team of researchers who investigated the orchid's "floral headspace," using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to identify volatile compounds in the flower's scent.

They identified several organic chemicals known as terpenoids, the most abundant of which was (E,E)-α-farnesene, a compound found in the natural coating of apples, pears, and other fruits.

From about 5 centimeters (2 inches) away, "the floral scent of D. lindenii was readily detectable to the authors," they reported in the European Journal of Environmental Sciences, "and seemed to intensify at sunset." The fragrance was most potent in the early morning, they added, between 1 and 6 a.m. local time. "The scent can best be described as sweet-smelling and somewhat fruity," they wrote.

7. It was long thought to rely on just one moth for pollination

Politikaner / Wikimedia Commons

The ghost orchid's pollen is hidden deep within its flowers, and so it can only be pollinated by an insect with a proboscis long enough to reach all the way inside.

For ghost orchids, the long-tongued pollinator was long ago identified as the giant sphinx moth, which is native to South and Central America but relatively rare in North America, with only occasional sightings in Florida and a few other southern U.S. states.

It's widely described as the sole pollinator of ghost orchids, thanks to its long proboscis and a lack of evidence for any other pollinators. Its larvae feed on the pond apple tree, which is also an important host for ghost orchids.

8. Its pollination might not be as simple as we thought

Charles J. Sharp / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite conventional wisdom about the ghost orchid's reliance on giant sphinx moths, photos taken in Florida suggest the reality is more complicated.

Wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. set up a camera trap in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, located just northwest of Big Cypress National Preserve , and caught images of five different moth species visiting ghost orchids. As National Geographic reports , two of these moths—the fig sphinx and pawpaw sphinx—had ghost orchid pollen on their heads.

This was later backed up by another photographer, Mac Stone, who captured images of a fig sphinx moth visiting a ghost orchid with the plant's pollen on its head. Both photographers also got photos of giant sphinx moths visiting ghost orchids, but none were carrying ghost-orchid pollen, raising the possibility that giant sphinx tongues are long enough to "steal" nectar from ghost orchids without actually pollinating them. These findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

If the ghost orchid really does have multiple pollinators—with or without the giant sphinx—it would be welcome news, since it would mean the orchid's reproduction doesn't depend entirely on one rare insect. And that may be especially valuable now, given the threat of pesticides and other factors fueling the widespread decline of insects around the world, including many important pollinators.

9. Its habitats are becoming more hazardous

In Florida, ghost orchids tend to grow on just three tree species—pop ash, pond apple, and bald cypress—but in Cuba, they've been found growing on at least 18 different host trees.

"Although populations of D. lindenii in southern Florida and Cuba are separated by only 600 km, this species appears to occupy two different habitats and colonizes a different set of host trees," researchers noted in a study published in Botanical Journal.

Ghost orchids in Florida also grow slightly higher off the ground than in Cuba, the authors noted, possibly because stagnant water prevents seedlings from growing on submerged tree surfaces during South Florida's rainy season.

In both countries, however, the ghost orchid's habitats "are undergoing rapid, irreversible change imposed by climate change and other factors," the researchers added. "Both regions, for example, are vulnerable to sea-level rise this century given their low elevation, and the severity and frequency of tropical cyclone activity is another concern."

Ghost orchids have already experienced a steady decline in the wild, and based on simulations of habitat changes, "hurricanes and similar disturbances could result in near-certain extinction in short time horizons," researchers reported in 2015, possibly within a period of 25 years.

The orchid faces another obstacle from encroaching human development, which is prompting changes in the water table and the fire cycle, according to a report published in the journal Wetland Science & Practice.

Yet another threat comes from the emerald ash borer , an invasive insect that kills ash trees. It hasn't reached Florida yet, but if it infects mature stands of pop ash trees in places like Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge —where 69% of all ghost orchids grow on pop ash—it could have a devastating effect on the species.

10. It has a problem with poachers, too

Along with its general rarity and remote, inhospitable habitat, the ghost orchid's camouflage makes it incredibly hard to find in the wild. That doesn't stop some people from trying, though, and not always for good reasons.

An estimated 2,000 ghost orchids live in the wild across South Florida, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), although a recent survey suggests there might be more.

While researchers want to know where those orchids are, the locations are often kept secret due to the threat of poachers, who may be willing to risk their lives in search of wild ghost orchids.

Although the rare plants may command a high price on the black market, this is stupid even beyond the obvious legal, ethical, and ecological reasons. Ghost orchids rarely survive removal from the wild.

11. It's very hard to cultivate, but one fungus seems to help

The ghost orchid not only tends to die when removed from its natural habitat, but it's also famously ill-suited to captivity in general.

Botanists long struggled to cultivate the orchid, hoping to create a population of captive-bred plants that could be periodically transplanted to help buffer their wild counterparts.

Although the ghost orchid has seemed impossible to cultivate, researchers have made some breakthroughs in recent years. Michael Kane, a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, has been working with a team of researchers to bring ghost orchid seeds from the wild to a propagation lab, where they try to germinate the seeds under sterile conditions on a gelled medium and then transfer the plants into a greenhouse.

The key is not only recreating precise conditions that ghost orchids need to thrive, but also providing them with the right fungus. Ghost orchid seeds won't germinate unless they're infected with a specific mycorrhizal fungus, which provides energy for the germination and then grows on the plant's roots as part of a symbiotic relationship.

In the wild, ghost orchids seem to colonize trees with moist, corrugated bark that harbors fungi in the genus Ceratobasidium, and researchers have identified certain fungal strains that lead to higher germination rates.

Kane and his team have been so successful in cultivating ghost orchids that they've also begun reintroducing them to the wild. The researchers planted 80 orchids in the wild in 2015, achieving an 80% survival rate a year later, then followed up with 160 more orchids in 2016.

This alone may not save the species, especially if its habitats remain in danger, but it's still a big step toward preserving these incredible ghosts.

" An Obsessive Quest To Photograph Florida's Ghost Orchid Pollinators ."  Earth Touch News Network .

Sadler, James J. et al. " Fragrance Composition Of Dendrophylax Lindenii (Orchidaceae) Using A Novel Technique Applied In Situ ."  European Journal of Environmental Sciences , vol 1, no. 2, 2012, pp. 137-141, doi:10.14712/23361964.2015.56

Houlihan, P.R., Stone, M., Clem, S.E.  et al.  " Pollination ecology of the ghost orchid ( Dendrophylax lindenii ): A first description with new hypotheses for Darwin’s orchids ."  Scientific Reports, vol. 9, 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-49387-4

Mújica, Ernesto B et al. " A Comparision Of Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax Lindenii) Habitats In Florida And Cuba, With Particular Reference To Seedling Recruitment And Mycorrhizal Fungi ."  Botanical Journal Of The Linnean Society , vol 186, no. 4, 2018, pp. 572-586, doi:10.1093/botlinnean/box106

Raventós, José et al . " Population Viability Analysis Of The Epiphytic Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax Lindenii) In Cuba ."  Biotropica , vol 47, no. 2, 2015, pp. 179-189, doi:10.1111/btp.12202

Clem, Shawn, and Michael Duever. " Hydrologic Changes Over 60 Years (1959-2019) In An Old-Growth Bald Cypress Swamp On A Rapidly Developing Landscape ."  Wetland Science & Practice , vol 36, no. 4, 2019, pp. 362-372.

Nguyen H. Hoang, et al. " Comparative seed germination and seedling development of the ghost orchid,  Dendrophylax lindenii  (Orchidaceae), and molecular identification of its mycorrhizal fungus from South Florida ."  Annals of Botany , vol. 119, 2017, pp. 379–393, doi:10.1093/aob/mcw220

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Orchids Plus

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Everything you want to know about orchids & orchid care

Facts About The Ghost Orchid

Ghost Orchid

Ghost orchid is a perennial orchid that is an epiphyte in nature. Lindenii in its scientific name is actually a name of a famous botanist from Belgium. This orchid was identified by Jean Jules Linden in 1844 in Cuba. It is a unique plant in the sense that there are no leaves and what one gets to see is only a thin network of roots wrapped around the branches of the host tree. These roots produce spikes that grow and bear flowers. The reason why this orchid is referred to as Ghost orchid is because of the fact that its flowers appear to be suspended in air like a ghost.

Facts about the Ghost Orchid

  • Habitat: Cuba, Bahamas, and Florida
  • Scientific name: Dendrophylax lindenii
  • Other common names: Ghost orchid, white frog orchid, palm polly

It is a rare species of orchids because it is very difficult to cultivate in home conditions. It loves its natural habitat that includes marshes and swamps where there are a lot of damp and humid conditions. It is difficult to identify this orchid even in its natural habitat because their roots grow on the branches of trees. The roots perform the functions of photosynthesis and they also help to absorb moisture for the plant. These roots have different shades like grey, green and white and they blend well with the color of the bark of the tree on which they grow. As these plants have no leaves and bloom for a short time period (3 weeks during April and August), it is easy to overlook them even in their natural habitat. One ingenious method to identify this orchid in its natural habitat is through the smell of this plant. Ghost orchid produces soap like smell when it is blooming.

If you take a look at the flowers of this orchid, you see either a white frog flying in the air or a ghost floating in air from here and there. This could be quite intimidating for anyone moving in the natural habitat of this orchid in Everglades or a forest in Cuba. As far as structure of the flowers is concerned, it has three sepals and three white petals. What is surprising is that Ghost orchid produces only one flower at a time. However, there have been plants that produced up to 10 flowers at the same time. After maturing, Ghost orchid plant can go without flowering for many years.

The flowers of Ghost orchid bloom are seen blooming between May and August every year. The flowers can grow up to a size of 4-5 inches. These flowers last up to a period of 14 days. The pollens are secured deep inside the flower that are accessed only a by a giant moth with large antennae. Pollination can be done by hand by using cotton swabs and then inserting these swabs into the flowers of the female ghost orchid plant.

It is very difficult to grow Ghost orchids in home conditions as you need to recreate conditions of very high humidity and high temperatures. This plant needs diffused light conditions and also frequent misting to grow. This is the reason why ghost orchids have been grown inside greenhouses only.

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Ghost Orchid Growing & Care Guide

Cody Medina

The Ghost Orchid is a rare and enigmatic flower that captures the imagination of botanists and nature enthusiasts alike. With its delicate white petals and ethereal beauty, this elusive orchid has become the stuff of legends.

Found only in select regions of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, the Ghost Orchid has fascinated scientists and adventurers for centuries, drawing them into a world of mystery and intrigue.

We will discuss the captivating story of the Ghost Orchid, exploring its unique characteristics, its elusive nature, and the ongoing efforts to conserve and protect this extraordinary plant.

What is a Ghost Orchid?

The Ghost Orchid, scientifically known as Dendrophylax lindenii, is an enigmatic and mysterious flowering plant that has captured the fascination of botanists, nature enthusiasts, and orchid lovers alike. This rare and elusive orchid is native to the swamps and wetlands of Cuba, the Bahamas, and southern Florida in the United States.

The Ghost Orchid gets its intriguing name from its ethereal appearance, which gives it the illusion of being a ghostly apparition floating in the forest. Unlike most orchids, which rely on their green leaves for photosynthesis, the Ghost Orchid lacks chlorophyll and depends on its host trees for survival. It attaches itself to the trunks or branches of specific tree species, such as the bald cypress or pond apple, using its specialized aerial roots.

This unique adaptation allows the Ghost Orchid to extract nutrients and moisture from the air and rainwater, making it an epiphytic orchid. It is often found in shady and humid habitats, nestled among the dense foliage of its host trees. Due to its elusive nature and specific habitat requirements, the Ghost Orchid is considered one of the rarest and most endangered orchids in the world.

The Ghost Orchid has a distinctive appearance that sets it apart from other orchids. It typically has a single, white, waxy flower that blooms from a long, slender stem. The flower is about three inches wide and has a delicate, ethereal beauty. The petals and sepals are long and slender, and the lip is fringed with intricate, thread-like structures that resemble delicate tendrils. The fragrance of the Ghost Orchid is said to be intoxicating, often described as a blend of jasmine and honeysuckle.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Ghost Orchid is its blooming behavior. Unlike most orchids, which have predictable flowering seasons, the Ghost Orchid is known for its sporadic and unpredictable blooming patterns. It can go several years without blooming, making the sight of a blooming Ghost Orchid a truly special and rare event.

Where is the Ghost Orchid native?

Native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, the Ghost Orchid has a relatively small distribution range. It can be found in various countries such as Cuba, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. However, within the United States, the Ghost Orchid is limited to specific states, making it a truly unique and treasured native species.

Within the United States, this plant is primarily found in the southern region of Florida. This includes areas such as the Everglades National Park, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. These locations offer the ideal habitat for the Ghost Orchid, with their humid and swampy environments providing the necessary conditions for its growth and survival.

While the Ghost Orchid’s range is mostly concentrated in Florida, there have been a few rare sightings of the orchid in other states. These sightings are considered rare and sporadic, making the Ghost Orchid a true botanical gem for those lucky enough to witness it outside of its primary habitat. Some of the states where it has been occasionally spotted include Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

It is important to note that locating the Ghost Orchid can be quite challenging, as it tends to grow high up in the canopy of trees, often hidden from view. Furthermore, due to its rarity and protected status, its exact locations are often kept confidential to prevent unauthorized collection or disturbance.

How to start from seed

Known for its ethereal beauty and ghostly appearance, this orchid has captured the imaginations of many. While it is notoriously difficult to cultivate, starting Ghost Orchids from seed can be a rewarding and exciting endeavor.

  • Acquiring Ghost Orchid Seeds: Obtaining seeds can be a challenge, as this species is endangered and protected in many areas. However, there are specialized orchid nurseries and conservation organizations that may have a limited supply of seeds available for purchase or for research purposes. It is important to ensure that the seeds are obtained legally and ethically.
  • Creating the Ideal Growing Environment: Ghost Orchids are epiphytic orchids, meaning they naturally grow on trees rather than in soil. To recreate their natural habitat, you will need to create a suitable growing environment. Start by selecting a container or tray with good drainage. Fill it with a mixture of sphagnum moss, tree fern fiber, and orchid bark to provide a loose and well-draining medium for the seeds.
  • Sterilizing the Growing Medium: Before planting the Ghost Orchid seeds, it is crucial to sterilize the growing medium to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi. This can be done by heating the medium in an oven at a temperature of 180°F (82°C) for about 30 minutes. Allow it to cool completely before proceeding.
  • Sowing the Seeds: Carefully scatter the Ghost Orchid seeds onto the surface of the sterilized growing medium. Since Ghost Orchid seeds are extremely small and dust-like, they should be handled with great care. Avoid burying or covering the seeds, as they require light for germination. Gently mist the surface of the medium with water to ensure the seeds adhere to it.
  • Creating a Humid Environment: Ghost Orchid seeds require high levels of humidity for successful germination. To create a humid environment, cover the container or tray with a clear plastic lid or wrap it with plastic wrap. This will help retain moisture and create a mini greenhouse effect. Place the container in a warm and well-lit area, away from direct sunlight.
  • Patience and Monitoring: Germination of Ghost Orchid seeds can be a slow process, often taking several months or even up to a year. It is important to be patient and not disturb the seeds during this time. Regularly monitor the growing medium’s moisture levels, ensuring it remains consistently moist but not overly wet. Mist the medium lightly whenever it starts to dry out.
  • Transplanting and Care: Once the Ghost Orchid seedlings have developed several leaves and are large enough to handle, they can be carefully transplanted into individual pots. Use a well-draining orchid mix and provide them with proper orchid care, including regular watering, indirect sunlight, and appropriate temperature and humidity levels. Ghost Orchids are delicate and require special attention, so it is essential to research their specific care requirements.

How to grow this plant in your garden

With its ethereal appearance and elusive nature, cultivating the Ghost Orchid can be a rewarding but challenging endeavor. This guide helps with the essential steps and considerations for successfully growing this plant in your garden.

  • Understanding the Ghost Orchid’s Natural Habitat: The first step in growing the Ghost Orchid is to gain a thorough understanding of its natural habitat. These orchids are primarily found in the swamps and wetlands of Florida and Cuba, where they grow in dense, shaded areas. The Ghost Orchid typically grows on the trunks and branches of trees, often near water bodies. Recreating these conditions is crucial for the successful cultivation of this elusive orchid.
  • Providing the Ideal Growing Environment: To grow Ghost Orchids, it is essential to replicate their natural environment as closely as possible. This includes providing the right amount of light, humidity, and temperature. The Ghost Orchid thrives in dappled shade and prefers high humidity levels. You can achieve this by placing the orchid in a terrarium or greenhouse with controlled conditions. Use a humidifier or mist the orchid regularly to maintain the appropriate humidity level.
  • Selecting the Right Potting Medium: Choosing the correct potting medium is crucial for the Ghost Orchid’s growth. These orchids prefer a loose, well-draining medium that mimics the tree bark they naturally grow on. A popular choice is a mix of sphagnum moss and tree fern fiber. This combination provides sufficient moisture retention while allowing water to drain away, preventing root rot.
  • Watering and Feeding: Proper watering is vital for the Ghost Orchid’s well-being. It is essential to maintain consistently moist but not waterlogged conditions. Water the orchid when the potting medium feels slightly dry to the touch. Ensure that excess water drains away to prevent stagnant conditions. Fertilize the Ghost Orchid with a balanced orchid fertilizer every few weeks during the growing season to provide necessary nutrients.
  • Propagation Techniques: Propagating Ghost Orchids can be challenging due to their specific requirements. One common method is through seed germination, which requires careful sterilization and dedication. Another option is vegetative propagation, where you separate keikis (baby orchids) from the mother plant and grow them individually. Both methods require patience and expertise but can lead to successful propagation.

Growing the Ghost Orchid is a rewarding but demanding endeavor that requires careful attention to its unique requirements. By understanding its natural habitat, providing the ideal growing environment, selecting the right potting medium, watering, and feeding appropriately. Additionally, by exploring propagation techniques, you can increase your chances of successfully cultivating this elusive and captivating orchid. Remember to approach this process with patience and a sense of wonder, as the Ghost Orchid truly is a remarkable treasure of the botanical world.

Interesting facts about Ghost Orchid

The Ghost Orchid is a rare and mysterious orchid species that has captured the fascination of botanists and nature enthusiasts alike. Here are some intriguing facts about this enigmatic flower:

  • Elusive and Rare: The Ghost Orchid is one of the rarest orchids in the world. It is native to the swamps and hammocks of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Due to its elusive nature and specific habitat requirements, it is challenging to spot in the wild. This rarity has contributed to the Ghost Orchid’s aura of mystique.
  • Non-photosynthetic Lifestyle: Unlike most plants, they do not rely on photosynthesis to obtain energy. Instead, it obtains nutrients from the surrounding environment. It achieves this by forming a symbiotic relationship with specific fungi, which provide the Ghost Orchid with necessary nutrients. This unique adaptation allows the orchid to survive in low-light environments such as the shaded swamps it calls home.
  • Ethereal Blooms: The Ghost Orchid produces delicate, white, and ghostly flowers, which give it its name. Each flower is typically around three inches in diameter and has a distinctive structure. The blooms are solitary and appear to float in mid-air, as they emerge from the stem without any visible leaves.
  • Fragrant Night Bloomer: The Ghost Orchid’s blooms are known for their captivating fragrance, which is described as a mix of sweet and citrusy notes. Interestingly, these flowers only open at night, releasing their scent to attract pollinators like moths and nocturnal insects. This nocturnal blooming behavior adds to the allure of this plant.
  • Endangered Status: Due to habitat destruction, illegal collection, and climate change, the Ghost Orchid is considered critically endangered. Protection efforts and conservation projects are underway to preserve and restore its natural habitats. The Ghost Orchid’s vulnerability and rarity make it a prized find for orchid enthusiasts, but it is crucial to prioritize its conservation.
  • Pop Culture Fame: The Ghost Orchid gained significant public attention after its portrayal in the non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean, which was later adapted into the film “Adaptation.” This exposure brought the Ghost Orchid into the mainstream consciousness and further fueled interest in this remarkable and elusive flower.
  • Research and Discovery: Despite being studied for over a century, there is still much to learn about this plant. Scientists continue to explore its unique adaptations, symbiotic relationships, and genetic makeup. Each new discovery adds to our understanding of this fascinating plant and its intricate ecological role.

It is a captivating and mysterious orchid species that has captured the curiosity of botanists and nature lovers alike. Its rarity, non-photosynthetic lifestyle, ethereal blooms, endangered status, and cultural significance make it a plant of great interest and conservation concern. As we continue to uncover its secrets, the Ghost Orchid serves as a reminder of the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

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Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce

Incredible photos show multiple species pollinate the rare and enigmatic flower, which is good news for the endangered species..

Moths pollinating rare ghost orchids.

Deep in remote Florida swamps, a team of researchers and photographers have made a new discovery that upends what we thought we knew about the ghost orchid, one of the world’s most iconic flowers, and how it reproduces.

These rare, charming orchids were long thought to be pollinated by a single insect: the giant sphinx moth. This massive creature sounds like a miniature jet as it zooms through the swamp with a six-inch wingspan, says conservation scientist Peter Houlihan .

The Everglades wetlands were once dominated by large cypress trees, home to epiphytes and orchids, like ...

But now, photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. and Mac Stone show that a couple of moth species other than the giant sphinx visit and carry the ghost orchid ’s pollen—and the giant sphinx itself may play a completely different role than previously thought.

These results provide insight into the plant’s virtually unknown reproductive biology, and they suggest that conserving the endangered species may be less difficult than assumed, since it’s not dependent on only one pollinator, says Houlihan, who collaborated with Ward and Stone to make the discovery. The findings also show the ghost orchids can be important food sources for moths.

“It’s very good news,” Stone says.

Ghost orchids are found in Florida and Cuba, and there are only about 2,000 ghost orchids in the state. As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.

They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.

Orchid fever

On a recent summer day in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge , home to a quarter of the state’s ghosts, I spent many hours searching for one in bloom with Ward and refuge biologist Mark Danaher. We hiked through knee-deep water the colour of sweet tea from early morning until afternoon, marveling at the abundance of diversity of air plants and orchids. When we finally found a ghost, it was really magic.

The plant’s bright white, delicate flowers seem to hover above its stems, and the modified petals have long, curly legs that flutter in the breeze. In the centre of the flower is the entrance to a tube called a nectar spur, which contains sweet secretions. Ideally, the nectar will attract a moth, which will elongate its tongue-like proboscis and stick its head into the tube. If all goes well, the moth will contact the plant’s bundle of pollen, called a pollinium, which will stick to its head, and hopefully be carried on to fertilize another ghost .

These orchids have long nectar spurs, stretching five inches or more in length, though this varies. Given the size of the tube, it has long been thought that only the giant sphinx moths would be capable of reaching the nectar.

But when Ward set up several remote camera traps in this wildlife refuge, he documented five species of moths visiting these ghost orchids. Two of these species, fig sphinx ( Pachylia ficus ) and rustic sphinx ( Manduca rustica ), had ghost orchid pollinia on their heads.

Stone and Houlihan worked out of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary , one of the world’s largest old-growth cypress forests, a 45-minute drive to the northwest.

The sanctuary, owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, has set up a scope for visitors to see a massive ghost orchid, known as the “super ghost.” This flower sits 50 feet up on a cypress, and it’s the only ghost that is relatively easy to see. The orchid currently has eight flowers, “which is just insane,” Stone says—most plants put out only one flower at a time.

In 2018, Stone (assisted by Houlihan) spent countless hours setting up a camera on this orchid, tree-climbing and tinkering.

Biologist Peter Houlihan sets up a light trap 90-feet in a cypress tree. Attracted to different ...

Stone, who lives in South Carolina, says that during the height of the work last summer, he’d often lay awake at night thinking about how to perfect the shots. “I’d book a last-minute flight and then just move my camera an inch,” he says. “It was just madness.”

All experienced a bit of orchid fever. “I do think it’s possible that orchids drive people crazy,” Ward says: The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours.

But all this work paid off. In August Mac captured photos of a fig sphinx visiting the flower with ghost orchid pollinia on its head, complementing Ward’s pictures of the same in the panther refuge. Results from the collaborators have been submitted but have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Both photographers also revealed giant sphinxes visiting the ghosts—but the insects weren't carrying any pollinia. In one shot by Stone, the moth can clearly by seen drinking nectar, but its head is not nearly close enough to the flower to pick up the pollinium.

This led to a wild hypothesis: Perhaps the giant sphinxes steal nectar from the ghost orchids without pollinating them, Houlihan says. His research also turned up a dozen local hawkmoth species (including Pachylia ficus and Manduca rustica ) that have tongues that are long enough to theoretically sup the orchid’s sugar.

“There are probably lots of moths that can pollinate these flowers,” he says.

Blame Darwin

There are many flower species that are pollinated by a single moth or butterfly.

Most famously, in 1862, Darwin examined a Madagascar orchid now named after him (Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale ) that has a foot-long nectar tube. He was somewhat exasperated, as he hadn’t heard of any moth with a 12-inch tongue. “Good heavens,” he wrote, “what insect can suck it?” He hypothesised that there must be an insect in the area with just such a proboscis.

He was proven right 130 years later, when Morgan’s sphinx moth ( Xanthopan morganii ) was seen feeding from the orchid with its huge tongue. Houlihan’s studies of this moth, funded by the National Geographic Society, helped lead to his work on ghost orchids.

This example may have rubbed off on people’s thinking about the ghost orchid, says Larry Zettler , an orchid expert at Illinois College. “Everyone assumed the same kind of thing would happen with the ghost orchid, because you don’t have this massive nectar spur for no reason,” he says.

But having multiple pollinators, which apparently isn’t the case for Darwin’s orchid, will help to provide more opportunities for the ghost orchid to successfully reproduce.

“It’s good to have redundancy in ecosystems,” says Mike Owen, a biologist at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve , where he and his colleagues have discovered 450 ghost orchids since 1993.

Orchid thieves

Two months after Owen started his job, horticulturist John Laroche, along with two members of the Seminole tribe, were stopped while attempting to remove dozens of valuable air plants and orchids from the preserve. This haul including three ghost orchids—a story told, along with the giant-sphinx-only pollination theory, in Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief and the film based on it, Adaptation .

Since that time, the reserve has introduced various measures to reduce poaching, such as installing camera traps. The same is true in the panther refuge, Danaher says, where more than 40 cameras have been installed to catch photos of wildlife and would-be poachers.

Poaching is not only illegal, but a terrible idea, because ghost orchids invariably die after being moved even slightly, Owen says. They require very specific micro-environments, which is why they thrive in Florida’s swamps, where flowing water slowly passes through, moderating temperatures and humidity. Fakahatchee Strand, a channel of low-lying, oft-flooded strand forest has the highest diversity of air plants and orchids in the continental U.S.

Development in South Florida has severely altered water flows that are so vital to the ecosystem and the orchids, but the importance of this untrammeled flow is being increasingly recognized.

The importance of old-growth

It’s also crucial to conserve remaining old-growth forests, which are home to ghosts and many other rare plants and animals, says Shawn Clem , research director for the sanctuary.

A lake in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, where ghost orchid pollination was documented by ...

The super ghost itself shows people that the flower is not an abstract concept—but a very real plant that depends on a healthy flow of water to survive, she says. The new discovery about the ghosts’ pollinators “speaks to the need for conserving places like Corkscrew so that we can continue to understand the complex ecology of the region,” Clem adds.

Cypress trees once covered much or most of southwestern Florida, and Corkscrew offers a glimpse of how the land once appeared. Many trees reach to heights of around a hundred feet, and some of them are about 600 years old.

The super ghost is by far the highest situated of its species, and one of only few known to occur in cypress trees. But Houlihan and Stone think that, once, it was probably a common scenario—and these highly perched plants were likely incredibly important for seeding the understory below.

“This is just one reason why these old-growth forests are so important,” Stone says.

The plants produce hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds, which are distributed by air currents, and as you can imagine, it’s easier for seeds to drift downward from a high spot than to be lifted upward.

When the seeds land in a choice spot, they must also come into contact with the right kind of fungus. This is the case for all orchids, and many of them require an individual species. Zettler recently discovered that ghost orchids can only germinate in the presence of one species, in the genus Ceratobasidium .

That being said, Mike Kane , a horticulturist at the University of Florida, has figured out how to cultivate ghost orchids in the lab. That discovery has already helped to increase the supply of plants, some of which have been replanted to the wild, in places like the panther refuge.

There, and in the Fakahatchee and Big Cypress National Preserve, the ghost orchids are primarily found in pop ash trees, followed by pond apples. These trees are much shorter than cypresses, and many of the ghost orchids there are only a few feet off the ground.

When I finally saw my first such bloom, chest-high, with lip-like petals and a striking bright white colour, I began to see how orchids hold such strange power over people. Ward is a good example.

After seeing his first flowering ghost in July 2012, in the Fakahatchee preserve, he returned for three days in a row to get the right shot—and has been photographing them ever since.

“The ghost orchid motivated me to explore these swamps,” Ward says, “and I hope its story can inspire others to protect the places where it lives.”

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North American Orchid Conservation Center

North American Orchid Conservation Center

Dendrophylax lindenii (lindl.) benth. ex rolfe, ghost orchid, palm polly.

facts about a ghost orchid

Facts About

Accepted Synonyms: Aeranthes lindenii, Polyradicion lindenii, Polyrrhiza lindenii Dendrophylax lindenii, the Ghost Orchid, grows in Cuba and the West Indies and Florida where it was known to occur in three southern counties. The Ghost Orchid is leafless with chlorophyllous roots that are gray-green in color with short white markings and are 3-5 mm wide to over 50 cm long. During May-August, a small percentage of the plants produce one white flower, rarely two, with sepals and petal that are similar. The labellum is 3-lobed with the center lobe triangular in shape, flanked by two elongated, tapered lobes. This orchid grows on several tree species in hardwood hammocks, tramways and sloughs, and cypress domes. Although Dendrophylax lindenii is considered vulnerable across its range, in Florida, this orchid is endangered where it is threatened by illegal collection and disruption of wetland hydrology.


It was once believed that the night flying Giant Sphinx Moth, Cocytius antaeus, was the only insect in North America with a long enough proboscis to reach the nectar in this orchid's long spur and pollinate its flowers. Recent field work has documented other moth species such as Eumorpha labruscae and Protambulyx shigilis visiting the flowers and two other moths, Dolba hyloeus and Pachylia ficus were observed with ghost orchid pollinia on their heads.

Ecosystem Type

Swamps, woodlands


  • the labellum has a spur
  • the labellum is lobed

May - August

  • the lateral petals are ascending
  • the lateral petals are spreading

Fruits or seeds

Growth form, facts and uses, native to north america, north american conservation status & distribution, conservation status.

Select a location to view conservation status:

North America Distribution

Adapted from USDA data

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Ghost orchid facts for kids

Epipogium aphyllum , the ghost orchid (not to be confused with the American ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii ) is a hardy myco-heterotrophic orchid lacking chlorophyll .

It is famous for its unpredictable appearance; in many localities it has been seen just once. It is found in beech, oak, pine and spruce forests on base-rich soils. It is a rare and critically endangered plant in habitat, and is believed to be extinct throughout much of its former range, although it has been recently confirmed in the United Kingdom (2009), an area where the plants were believed to have gone extinct.

The plants are protected in many locales, and removing the plants from habitat or disturbing the plants, even for scientific study, can be a very serious matter in many jurisdictions. These plants are exceptionally rare and should never be removed from habitat or disturbed.

In 1926 the Welsh botanist Eleanor Vachell was asked by the British Museum to investigate a report of the ghost orchid in England. For many years the Welsh National Herbarium at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales) had only a small rhizome that had been gathered by Vachell on 29 May 1926.

Epipogium aphyllum - Jõhvi

Once thought to be saprophytic, these hardy plants are actually obligate mycoheterotrophs (or epiparasites ) that obtain nutrients from mycorrhizal networks involving basidomycete fungi that are in turn associated with the roots of various species of coniferous trees. They grow from an underground, burrowing stem which lacks chlorophyll and possesses ephemeral leaves that are small scales. The plants only emerge above ground to flower, especially during very wet summers in Western Europe.

The plants have an extremely wide range of distribution. The species is widespread across much of Europe and northern Asia from Spain to Kamchatka and south the Himalayas . It is, however, exceptionally rare in habitat. The plants are all found in areas which typically experience cold winters. The plant's rhizomes are densely colonized by fungi bearing clamp-connections and dolipores, all basidiomycetes , gill or pore-forming mushroom species that are normally found growing in mycorrhizal association with the roots of coniferous trees.

These plants harness an array of fungal symbionts across several families, often simultaneously. Analysis of these plants have identified Inocybe species as exclusive symbionts for 75% of the plants in habitat, as well as others ( Hebeloma , Xerocomus , Lactarius and Thelephora ). The plants also host ascomycete endophytes, which appear to assist the plant in parasitizing some of the plant's basidiomycete symbionts.

The plants defy cultivation outside of laboratory conditions, as they require not only specific fungal symbionts , but also specific host trees with which these mushroom species form mycorrhizal relationships. Large plants of this species can produce a rather stunning woodland display with up to a dozen flower stalks at once bearing 3–4 flowers each growing out of coniferous leaf litter.

Chromosome number is often stated as 2n = 68, though one research article questions whether this value could be for a different Epipogium species.

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Unique and Amazing Places and Species

Ghost Orchid

Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii

Ghost Orchid Facts

  • The gorgeous plant most often known by the common name of the Ghost Orchid represents a truly magnificent species of flora. The fabulous botanical beauty also goes by a few other common names in parts of its native range, however.
  • A few of these alternate terms include the white frog orchid and the palm polly. This awesome flowering plant nevertheless also bears another, less memorable appellation. That’s the cumbersome scientific name of Dendrophylax lindenii.
  • The Belgian plant collector Jean Jules Linden became the first person to officially recognize the species. The fortuitous discovery of this lovely plant occurred in the year 1844. In doing so, he gave the world a great gift of beauty.
  • To the amazement of some, this plant holds a surprise. It bears a close relationship to species native to lands bordering the African and Indian Oceans. This occurs because the members of its genus all evolved during the time of Gondwana .
  • Quite sadly, the truly stunning plant called the Ghost Orchid now finds itself in grave peril. This lamentable situation actually occurs due to not merely one problem, but a combination of multiple factors. These include its small range and habitat loss.
  • It now also faces other great dangers to its continued existence. Perhaps the greatest of these, though, remains the threat of ongoing climate change . Presently, the IUCN lists it as Endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species.

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Ghost Orchid Physical Description

The truly fantastic Ghost Orchid represents one of the orchid varieties that grows as what’s technically known as an epiphyte. That’s because it grows on the surface of another organism and receives its nourishment directly from the air and water.

Within its native habitat, however, this surface most commonly includes the limbs and trunks of trees. The remarkably adapted Angiosperm further displays a relatively strong preference for pop ash and pond-apple trees, though. The reason for this remains unknow.

The visually and physically distinctive variety of orchid typically also develops as a leafless vine. It also remains best known for the gorgeous blooms it produces. The marvelous Ghost Orchid further generally produces between 1 – 10 of these.

Not content to stop there, its blossoms also tend to open only one at at time, prolonging our enjoyment of its appeal. The flowers display a brilliant white color, and average 2.75 – 3.5 in (7 – 9 cm) in length. The same blooms also average 1.2 – 1.6 in (3 – 4 cm) in width.

  • Kingdom: Plantae
  • Phylum: Tracheophyte
  • Class: Monocots
  • Order: Asparagales
  • Family: Orchidaceae
  • Genus: Dendrophylax
  • Species: D. lindenii

Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii

Ghost Orchid Distribution, Habitat, and Ecology

Quite unfortunately, the magnificent Ghost Orchid evolved to a natural range that poses it numerous problems. That’s because it appears in a portion of the globe that’s both extremely limited and restricted. These zones of habitation are also highly isolated.

In point of fact, the beautiful and delicate Angiosperm occurs in the wild in only two small portions of the world. To the amazement of some, these isolated locations include the island of Cuba , and the state of Florida, in the United States , in North America .

Its own nature tends to make it difficult for the beautiful plant to prosper, however. Regrettably, those same traits also make it even more complicated for it to spread in any numbers. That’s because the species of flora only appears naturally in very specific areas.

These extremely selective areas comprise regions consisting primarily of damp, swampy forests. But wait, there’s more yet to come. The fabulous, but highly selective plant also requires the presence of specific tree species in sufficient abundance.

The breathtaking Ghost Orchid also holds yet another distinction. That holds true due to the fact that its physical nature remains extremely uncommon among Monocots. Its leaves and stem have been reduced to almost non-existence.

As a result, the great majority of its mass now holds a most bizarre-seeming appearance. In point of fact, most of its form now consists of its many branching, hair-like roots. Finally, it’s also pollinated almost exclusively by a variety of moths, further distinguishing it.

Species Sharing Its Range

Florida Panther, Puma concolor coryi

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The Orchid Resource

Some interesting facts surrounding the rare ghost orchid.

One of the most mysterious flowers that are one of the hardest to find are known as ghost orchids. These flowers are rarely seen in any controlled habitat maintained by man because they happen to be an endangered species. They cannot be found in dry areas and are similar to tropical ones because they love the hot and humid areas of Florida and even Cuba.

If you do happen to find one of these rare species where ever you are they really are a sight to see and may be one of the only times that you get to them at all. It is much rarer to see them blooming since only a handful of them actually get to bloom and become pollinated by a particular moth. Make sure to take as many pictures as possible of this flower if you do see them in the wild.

Table of Contents

A Closer Look at The Characteristics of This Rare Breed

If you want to go on the hunt for them then you are going to need some basic understand of what to look for and what are some of their characteristics. When these flowers first start to grow in their beginning stage they will grow two leaves like any other orchid does, but eventually will get rid of these two leaves after it gets older. When this flower gets older the roots take the role of the leaves and actually perform photosynthesis directly to the plant.

The roots are very noticeable and they will usually look like long green shoots that are extended from the plant stem. They also will be around five inches tall and can sometimes be taller. They can extend up to 3 inches wide making them a plant that cannot be ignored. The flowers of these plants also are pure white and sometimes resemble a frog which is why some people call them frog orchids.

How They Live in Their Natural Environment

Like many other flowers such as dendrobiums, the ghost one is also known as epiphytes and have the ability to grow directly on tree trunks. This is not that unusual since many other species also can achieve this task and are able to easily be grown on trees. You will most likely find them growing on or around trees in their natural habitat so make sure to check these different places when searching for them.

They require a certain fungus to allow them to soak up nutrients much more efficiently which allows them to continue to thrive and stay healthy. If this fungus is not present in their habitat it is most likely that the plants will begin to die.

Other Facts That Will Interest You

Many years ago it is said that you could find these flowers practically anywhere around the swamps of Florida, but in the past few years this plant has actually become an endangered species and it is impossible to actually find them in their natural habitat anymore.

I am sure that you can find them around if you really look for them, but you will most likely be searching for a very long time. Try searching during the summertime because this is when they begin to bloom naturally and they might be easier to spot if their white flowers are out and about.

The Ghost Orchid: one of Britain's rarest plants

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

Distribution map of Ghost Orchids in Britain (all records: data courtesy of Botanical Society of the British Isles 2013).

Eleanor Vachell, c. 1930.

Eleanor Vachell, c. 1930.

A 1953 Ghost Orchid collected by Rex Graham

A 1953 Ghost Orchid collected by Rex Graham

The 1982 Herefordshire Ghost Orchid preserved in formalin

The 1982 Herefordshire Ghost Orchid preserved in formalin

The Welsh National Herbarium at Amguedfa Cymru has a small - but very precious - collection of Ghost Orchids ( Epipogium aphyllum Sw.); is this something to be proud of, or should they have been left in the wild? The answer lies in the donations to the Museum, and slugs...

Ghost Orchids are among the rarest plants in Britain. They have been found in about 11 sites in the Chilterns and West Midlands in England, but such is their rarity and the secrecy surrounding them that it is difficult to be sure exactly how many sites there are.

Regarded as extinct

Ghost Orchids were first discovered in Britain in 1854 but were only seen 11 times before the 1950s. They were seen regularly in a few Chilterns sites between 1953 and 1987 but then disappeared and were regarded as extinct until one plant was discovered in 2009. In most sites they have only been seen once, and rarely for more than ten years in any one site.

Ghost orchids - a fleeting occurrence in dark, shaded woods

Ghost Orchids get their name from their creamy-white to pinkish-brown colour and their fleeting occurrences in dark, shaded woods. The colour results from the absence of chlorophyll, as they are parasites of fungi associated with tree roots, and they do not need to photosynthesise their own food. They spend most of their lives as rhizomes (underground shoots) in the soil or leaf litter of woodlands, and flowering shoots only occasionally appear above ground. Even then, their small size (usually less than 15cm, rarely up to 23cm) and unpredictable appearance between June and October means that Ghost Orchids are rarely seen.

Until recently the only British specimen held by Amgueddfa Cymru was a scrap of rhizome collected for Eleanor Vachell in 1926 - her herbarium is one of the most comprehensive ever put together by a British botanist - who donated her collection to the Museum when she died in 1949. The story of how the fragment of Ghost Orchid was discovered is given in her botanical diary:

" 28 May 1926 . The telephone bell summoned Mr [Francis] Druce to receive a message from Mr Wilmott of the British Museum. Epipogium aphyllum had been found in Oxfordshire by a young girl and had been shown to Dr [George Claridge] Druce and Mrs Wedgwood. Now Mr Wilmott had found out the name of the wood and was ready to give all information!!! Excitement knew no bounds. Mr Druce rang up Elsie Knowling inviting her to join the search and a taxi was hurriedly summoned to take E.V. [=Eleanor Vachell] and Mr Druce to the British Museum to collect the particulars from Mr Wilmott. The little party walked to the wood where the single specimen had been found and searched diligently that part of the wood marked in the map lent by Mr Wilmott but without success, though they spread out widely in both directions... Completely baffled, the trio, at E.V.'s suggestion, returned to the town to search for the finder. After many enquiries had been made they were directed to a nice house, the home of Mrs I. ?, who was fortunately in when they called. E.V. acted spokesman. Mrs I. was most kind and after giving them a small sketch of the flower told them the name of the street where the girl who had found it lived. Off they started once more. The girl too was at home and there in a vase was another flower of Epipogium ! In vain did Mr Druce plead with her to part with it but she was adamant! Before long however she had promised to show the place to which she had lead Dr Druce and Mrs Wedgwood and from which the two specimens had been gathered. Off again. This time straight to the right place, but there was nothing to be seen of Epipogium ! 2 June 1926 . A day to spare! Why not have one more hunt for Epipogium ? Arriving at the wood, E.V. crept stealthily to the exact spot from which the specimen had been taken and kneeling down carefully, with their fingers they removed a little soil, exposing the stem of the orchid, to which were attached tiny tuberous rootlets! Undoubtedly the stem of Dr Druce's specimen! Making careful measurements for Mr Druce, they replaced the earth, covered the tiny hole with twigs and leaf-mould and fled home triumphant, possessed of a secret that they were forbidden to share with anyone except Mr Druce and Mr Wilmott. A few days later E.V. received from Mr Druce an excited letter of thanks and a box of earth containing a tiny rootlet that he had found in the exact spot they had indicated." [Source: Forty, M. & Rich, T. C. G., eds. (2006). The botanist. The botanical diary of Eleanor Vachell (1879-1948). National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.]

Eleanor shared the rootlet with her great friend Elsie Knowling, who also had a herbarium. Coincidentally, the two fragments have been reunited at the Museum after being apart for 84 years.

In 1953, Elsie's son Rex Graham stumbled across 22 Ghost Orchids in a Buckinghamshire wood, the largest colony of ever seen in Britain (Graham 1953). This was the first time that Ghost Orchids had been seen for 20 years and it made the national press. At the time Rex collected only three specimens, but over the next few years he collected more when they were found eaten off by slugs. Eventually Rex had four specimens for his own herbarium, to add to the scrap in his mother's herbarium. The Ghost Orchids were amongst the treasures in Graham & Harley herbarium, which was donated to Amgueddfa Cymru in 2010.

The third collection is the Museum's only specimen preserved in spirit (rather than being pressed and dried) so that the three dimensional structure of the flower can be seen. Dr Valerie Richards (formerly Coombs) was looking for wild orchids in Herefordshire in 1982 when she discovered a single ghost orchid in a new site. When she took a local botanist to the site a few days later, a slug had eaten through the stem. She picked it up and took it home and preserved it in formalin like the zoological specimens she had been used to working with during her university days. The specimen was kindly donated to the Museum in 2013.

The fourth and final collection resulted from the hard work and intuition of Mark Jannink combined with another hungry slug. Mark wondered if Ghost Orchids flowered more frequently after cold winters. He researched all previous Ghost Orchid discoveries - their preferred habitat, time of flowering and weather patterns - then staked out ten possible sites in the West Midlands, visiting them every two weeks throughout the summer of 2009, following the first cold winter for many years. Finally in September, he discovered one small specimen - causing great excitement amongst botanists, as the Ghost Orchid had been declared officially extinct in 2005! Mark returned several times over the next few days as the plant gradually faded and 'browned', until the stem was once again eaten through by slugs. The remains were collected and pressed, and donated to our herbarium shortly after.

So five of the seven British Ghost Orchids in Amgueddfa Cymru have been collected as a consequence of slugs, which are more of a threat than botanists. The Ghost Orchids are fully protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but nobody seems to have told that to the slugs!

We also have eight specimens from Europe, where Ghost Orchids are more widespread, though still rare. One of our best specimens was collected by W. A. Sledge in Switzerland.

You are welcome to visit the Welsh National Herbarium to see the Ghost Orchids, but don't expected us to reveal where they were found! And please leave your slugs at home.

Adapted for the website from the following article:

facts about a ghost orchid

The scrap of Ghost Orchid rootlet in Eleanor Vachell's herbarium. Also attached to the specimen are Dr George Claridge Druce's (1924) account of it from Gardeners Chronicle series 3 volume 76, page 114 and two small sketches by Miss Baumgartner.

Swiss Ghost Orchids collected by W. A. Sledge in 1955.

Swiss Ghost Orchids collected by W. A. Sledge in 1955.

The 2009 Ghost Orchid from Herefordshire.

The 2009 Ghost Orchid from Herefordshire.

  • Graham, R. A. (1953). Epipogium aphyllum Sw. in Buckinghamshire. Watsonia 3: 33 and tab. (http://archive.bsbi.org.uk/Wats3p33.pdf ).
  • Harley, R. M. (1962). Obituary: Rex Alan Henry Graham. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles 4: 505-507.

For further information on Ghost Orchids see:

  • Farrell, L. (1999) Epipogium aphyllum Sw. page 136 in Wigginton, M. J. (1999) British Red Data Books 1. Vascular plants . 3rd edition. JNCC, Peterborough.
  • Foley, M. J. Y. & Clark, S. (2005) Orchids of the British Isles. The Griffin Press, Maidenhead.
  • Jannink, M. & Rich, T. C. G. (2010). Ghost orchid rediscovered in Britain after 23 years. Journal of the Hardy Orchid Society 7: 14-15.
  • Taylor, L. & Roberts, D. L. (2011). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Epipogium aphyllum Sw. Journal of Ecology 99 : 878–890. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2745.2011.01839.x/abstract:

Comments - (1)

Most interesting. Please keep up the good work. Kind regards.

The Herefordshire Ghost Orchid, 2009

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Epiogium aphyllum - Ghost Orchid

Ghost Orchid flowers hang downwards but the lip points uppermost. Many European wild orchids have the lip downwards-pointing (resupinate) because the ovary is twisted through 180 degrees


As I trudged uphill, through the thick beech leaf carpet, carrying rucksack and tripod I felt, instinctively, that this year - 2016 - would be far too dry for those tiny treasures, the ghost orchids. Over the years this elusive and unpredictable species has become a particular passion for me within the greater encompass of my  Orchidophilia - a malady from which I have ‘suffered’ for half a century or so as a youngsters who first found bee orchids and could not believe how any flower could look like that.

The colouring of ghost orchids with various pale reddish browns, yellow and creamish tones creates a camouflage effect with the dappled lighting within their beechwood habitat. The knack is to spot the first when, as with orchids of all kinds, others then seem to spring up…as you become accustomed to the light and ‘get your ‘eye in’.  This time, I had given up, resigned to trying another day and I took a slight diversion some 40m sideways from my path to a gully. With that capriciousness that characterises this and other orchid species, there was the first just a few centimetres high….another 9 spikes followed, flowering some two weeks earlier than I have ever found them previously in that locale.

The serious work then began with macro lenses of all sorts from wide to telephoto with  natural light and flash whilst the large, persistent mosquitos found they had a new food source: me. One naturally has to suffer at times for one’s art but their vicious forays and persistence meant that a much higher proportion of images than usual had to be discarded at the later editing stage.

Ghost Orchid - Epipogium aphyllum

The most recent images I have of ghost orchids (July 2016) two weeks earlier than usual but deep in the beechwood gloom

As well as some images from this visit I have decided to dust off and revisit an article I wrote about four years ago that looks at my history with this orchid and gives an insight into what a love of a subject and a species can bring….

Way back in the mid 1960’s I was able to choose a book as a school biology prize and, having no idea of what it would eventually mean in my life, I chose V.S. Summerhayes’ classic Wild Orchids of Britain one of many classics in the Collins New Naturalist’s  series. Although there here was much between its covers to fascinate an embryonic orchidomane it was hard not to be specially intrigued by Epipogium aphyllum, the ghost orchid, with its rarity and the sheer unpredictability of flowering.

Never in its evolutionary history can one imagine that the Ghost Orchid has been anything other than extremely uncommon at best: there were never woodland glades filled with this orchid growing like bluebells. Flowering is unpredictable in all its known localities throughout Europe into Asia and, though the pollination mechanism is effective, little seed is reputedly set.

There was some publicity (and not a small amount of hyperbole) that greeted, some years ago, the re-discovery by Mark Jannink of this species in the UK for the first time since 1986. It made me think back over some personal experiences and the results of informal and continuing researches in Europe since my own search began in 1976 when I was living in Wendover, Bucks . From what I know now, that memorably hot summer did not augur well for discovering the ghost orchid since it is generally accepted that sufficient rain in spring and early summer is essential since moisture stored in the rhizome stimulates the creation of the buds on the rhizome that will result in aerial stems. This can even be governed by conditions the year previously when buds are formed and stay dormant beneath ground. However, if conditions are too dry, the rhizome continues to grow but those buds (and even flowering stems) are aborted below ground .

The following year things looked better and I made weekly pilgrimages to a certain well known beechwood near the town of Marlow. I hasten to add that, at this stage, my trustworthiness had been tested and established through conservation work I had done and the powers that ran BBONT (The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists trust) at that time. I was finally entrusted with chapter and verse as to previous known beechwood locations.

Epipogium aphyllum - Ghost Orchid

A telephone call in August 1978 alerted me to the discovery of a flowering stem that very day and the next, with precise directions, I was in the wood head down and searching in the gloom. Even then it was too late; there were no flowering stems but there were suspicious signs of the removal of a plant - the thieves had not even bothered to cover their traces and had left the hole. To say I was angry would be an understatement and I made careful enquiries and a ‘professional’ name kept being mentioned but there was no concrete proof. The general feeling was that, if proof of the theft were to be forthcoming, there could well be another large hole in the beechwood - this time filled with human material!

In September 1978 I left for a new life in Cyprus and, typically, in 1979 received a postcard to say that another spike had appeared and even that been removed. For normal folk it is hard to countenance the selfish obsessiveness of the very few. This exists with collectors of rare plants, birds’ eggs,  butterflies…there is no thought for the welfare and survival of the species: they are probably mentally ill. My involvement in conservation has lasted for four decades and I have had direct experience of the depredations of some of these people and the steps to which they will go… even to the point of impersonation. Nowadays I treat requests (but not demands) for sites politely: in Italy many of the locations for rarities have been trusted to me and I am at the end of that chain and, I am sorry, but I will not break the trust.

The timeline in my tale shifts to 1985, though it is fair to say that in the interim I had found a fair few orchids and written a book…Wild Orchids of Britain & Europe with Anthony Huxley  (1983). Now back in Britain, after a three year sojourn in Cyprus, I received a telephone call from Germany where a close friend told me that, in its classic site at Hüfingen in the Black Forest, there was a remarkable flowering. Such things are impossible to resist and that afternoon I took the first of several trains from S.Wales, a ferry to Ostend and an overnight train to Stuttgart…where, at 6am, I was greeted with a mug of hot coffee by German friends Ralf and Karin Berndt-Hansen. By 9am I was shaking with excitement - surrounded (well almost) by flowering stems of the ghost orchid.

Ghost Orchid - Epipogium aphyllum

The ghost orchid flower - showing all parts clearly: both lip and spur point upwards and you can see the short stem holding the ovary to the main flowering stem: it is non-resupinatet (ie not twisted through 180 degrees)

My very strong feelings about being European and the importance of widening interests  (to get the British flora and fauna in proportion) also informs my political and social views on the EU. I detest narrow-minded nationalism, abhor that ‘little Islander’ mentality and love the diversity of different  people, philosophies, outlooks and languages.

I know that some people feel a certain degree of ‘nationalism’ when it comes to orchids and feel they must see these things in Britain. In fact, back in the days when I did talks the length and breadth of the UK I was met one evening by a gentleman who asked me to let him know when I began to talk about orchids beyond Europe’s shores because he was only interested in UK orchids… I tried to explain that it was only by viewing our impoverished UK flora, that one could understand the evolution and effects of human pressures on the orchid population… not to say other species of plants and animals.  He was unmoved…and the loser for it, I believe.

I have long taken the attitude that I do not want to add my weight to the numbers going to see orchids where they are endangered, thus helping to ensure their demise. In Germany in an ancient pinewood, a wonderful colony of these exquisite ghost orchids survived (and still does) Locals know the site well and the fact that, across the road in another part of the wood, grow large numbers of lady's slipper flowering a couple of months earlier. There is great local pride taken in their protection.

Some observations…

Epipogium aphyllum - ghost Orchid

A pair of ghost orchid flowers against a white background

In Germany I had a first opportunity to study the orchids at close quarters and at leisure, noting the distinctive scent I had read about in old books. It has been alternately described as sweet or foetid and resembling fermenting pineapples. This shows the unreliability of olfactory descriptions – to me it was distinctly sweet: I could not swear to either honey or pineapple tones, I don’t have that kind of nose.  It may be worth pointing out that, although the wood at Hüfingen is of ancient pine it is not gloomy everywhere within like the UK beechwood sites –all the continental plants I have found either growing in beechwood/ mixed broadleaf or under pine were often growing in lighter conditions, even at woodland edges where sparse grass was able to grow.

In every case the host woods have been long-established and the orchid plants found have usually been where there is water close by in winter – a wet area in a wood, a ditch and so on. The substrate has always been calcareous but a plant’s immediate environment will be slightly acidic from the decaying leaf material.

As a saprophyte, any need for light would be questionable, especially since there are records of flowers being produced underground. This is accidental – probably an aborted spike since the pollinators do not burrow, unlike two fascinating Australian species in the genus Rhizanthella that always flower underground.

There is always a conundrum with those few wild orchid species in Europe that are considered saprophytic in that all orchids depend at some stage in their life on the relationship with a mycorrhiza fungus, often more a ding-dong battle for survival in the early stages than symbiosis. Many orchids growing in woodlands will revert to fungal dependence when light levels drop and push up no more than a profile as a kind of ‘periscope’. Indeed when the fungal mycelia penetrate the germinating orchid seed, (the seed itself is more or less a nucleus in a protective sheath) the chemicals secreted start to digest the ends of the mycelium within it turning them into ball like knots called ‘plotons’ that the plant then digests…a mix of parasitism and saprophytic activity.

Ghost Orchid

Spikes of the ghost orchid are often very small (less than 10cm in height) and with few flowers 2-3 for example

Although I have not been back to the Hüfingen site, I have happened by chance upon ghost orchid plants several times since -always in mountain regions of Europe. You get a ‘feel’ for the kind of wood – the pinewoods have plenty of moss, the beech with an abundance of leaf litter with woodland species such as the wintergreens (Pyrolas) and other orchid taxa such as various Epipactis and, by flowering time the seed-bearing stems of bird’s nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis ) and yellow bird’s nest ( Monotropa hypopitys ) I can recall several chance finds in long established pine and mixed woods in the Dolomites.

To the Present Day

Whilst living in Italy I have (for seven years in succession) visited several known sites often with Italian friends who, themselves, have been searching for decades. I cannot express too strongly my gratitude for the generosity and companionship of Pier-luigi Pacetti and Pino Rattini…not to forget the improvements to my spoken Italian.

It does not matter where this orchid grows, it capriciousness seems universal…there are no guarantees of success and  I never start off a day's hike with anything more than mild hope. With climatic conditions everywhere in Europe now highly unpredictable the chances of a wet spring are slim, but even when there is rain at what you might tentatively think was the right time flowering is, to say the least, uncertain.

There is one superb location in the Apennines some 2.5 hours journey from where we live. that demands hauling whatever photographic equipment you have for a good 90 minutes uphill in the heat. But when you get to a beechwood where a stream runs across the path in winter fatigue evaporates, when in the dappled light you glimpse the prize, trust me, I know. Spikes of ghost orchid have been seen on one occasion in four visits - what was particularly worrying was the apparent level of activity from wild boar which in Italy seem to have a love of orchid roots and tubers irrespective of rarity and are a major threat to their survival.

Another site on Mt Amiata, the highest mountain in Tuscany, has yielded a single flowering spike on one occasion. A far better and more reliable site in Abruzzo (the one I returned to yesterday on 13th July 2016) has provide at least a handful and more of spikes on each of the five occasions I have visited it.

In continental Europe sites can be threatened by logging and, ultimately, by climate change. It is almost impossible to tell the extent of this and thus of the exact distribution of the species given the known irregularity of flowering. There are numerous recorded instances of Epipogium aphyllum appearing after long absences (as in the UK) most likely from underground parts that have persisted unnoticed.

E. aphyllum is not an easy orchid to find for it blends well with leaf litter on the woodland floor where there is dappled light - the name ghost orchid is apt.The difficulty in ever knowing with any degree of accuracy the distribution of a species like this is that numerous visits have to be made over a potentially lengthy flowering period in successive years…serendipity is a great friend of orchid lovers.

Some Plant facts

The ghost orchid is an extremely attractive plant, irrespective of its almost legendary status as a rarity. The flowers are large for the overall size of the orchid (often less than 10cm tall…) slightly pendent and delicately hued. The lip has a crinkled margin with a large, triangular central lobe, it is whitish to delicate rose pink with purple papillae on its inner surface. white and delicately marked with rose pink whilst sepals are yellowish. and then there is that scent, delicate but sweet. There are purple streaks on the outer surface and on the rather fat spur.


Small humble bees are said to be the most successful pollinators as their size is just right to effect pollination .The bee lands on the exposed part of the lip and makes its way towards the spur where it can reach the nectar. As it backs out it ruptures the delicate rostellum, the anther cap is pulled away and the pollinia are exposed – these stick to the head parts of the bee. Very few seed capsules are produced in the UK (R.A Graham noted one in a group of 22 flowering stems he chanced upon). I have seen a few capsules where the plants grew in lighter cover in larger colonies in Italy and Germany where, presumably, there was an increased chance of a productive insect encounter.


E. aphyllum is a Eurasian species extending from Europe through Russia east to Japan and one of two known species in the genus Epipogium – the other, E. roseum has a wide distribution throughout the tropical regions of the world. The ghost orchid was first discovered in the UK in 1854 by Mrs W. Anderton near Tedstone Delamere and in 1876 nr Ludlow. The Oxfordshire plants were first noted in 1923…

The name derives from Epi (on) and pogon (a beard or lip). In the literature I have to hand the following diverse list of alternatives appears…there may be others. No-one seemed quite sure of where to put it in the taxonomic scheme of things. The first record I can find is from Siberia (1747)

1.  Satyrium epipogium L. (1753) 2.  Orchis aphylla F.W. Schmidt (1791) 3.  Epipactis epipogium (L.) All. (1789) 4.  Limodorum epipogium (L.) Sw. (1799) 5.  Epipogium aphyllum Sw (1814) 6.  Epipogium gmelinii Rich. (1817) 7.  Serapias epigogium (L.) Steud. (1821) 8.  Epipogium epipogium (L.) H. Karst. (1881) 9.  Epipogium generalis E.H.L. Krause (1905)

Saprophytic Orchids

Saprophytic orchids. Top left - Violet Limodore Limodorum abortivum , top right - Bird's-nest Orchid Neottia nidus avis , bottom left Coral Root Orchid Corallorhiza trifida , bottom right - Ghost Orchid Epipogium apyllum

©  paul harcourt davies august 2016, for information on tours and courses....

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Ghost Orchids Facts & Meaning, Ghost Orchid Flower Guide

Know Where they Come From: Ghost Orchids

ghost orchid flower

There are two types of ghost orchids known:

  • The first type is Dendrophylax lindenii or the American ghost orchid.
  • The second ghost orchid type is Epipogium aphyllum , better known as the Eurasian ghost orchid.

Here we are talking about the first type, American ghost orchid or D. lindenii.

ghost orchid flower

The florets don’t have chlorophyll and hence, are white in nature. When they move in night, they look like creepy ghosts floating in air and thus, the name ghost orchids. The plant is also leafless and depends on the other tree to make food.  As we write this, only 2,000 orchids are remained in Florida, making it a prized possession of the planet.

ghost orchid flower

The blooming season for the plant is June to August.  One to ten flowers are bloomed, with only one flower opening at a time.  The scent of plant resembles apple’s fragrance. The lower petal gives the illusion of jumping frog and the bracts of the flowers are almost paper-like, and thin.  The roots of the orchid cling with such intensity that not only it is difficult to tell them apart but also it makes for a display of flower floating in the middle of nowhere, eventually lending the flowers a ghost illusion.

Though, the plant doesn’t have any chlorophyll, it is an abundant source of nectar.  The pollination of the flowers is done by sphinx moth in night that is lured by nectar. Sphinx has long tongue (proboscis) that lets it reach the nectar sap located deep within. The moth goes from one plant to another in the search of nectar, and transfers the pollen as a result. But due to human intervention in the natural habitat of ghost orchids, the pollination alone doesn’t remain as a reliable and viable option for this endangered flora species.

The sphinx moth justifies Charles Darwin’s prediction of long-tongued moth species for the pollination of the Madagascar orchid Angraecum sesquipedale.

Given their unique appearance, the over-collection of the flowers by flower enthusiasts are also to be blamed for the rapid decline in their population besides hydrologic changes and habitat destruction by humans. In fact, its sightings became too rare that it was declared ‘lost and extinct’ in Britain in the year 2010.

According to the author, Peter Marren of famous book- Britain’s Rare Flowers, the flower blooms when it is the right condition, or else the root stay put underground in hibernation.

Where you can see the Ghost Orchids in Action:

Native to Florida, Bahamas and Cuba, the plant is now deemed endangered and can be seen in Big Cypress National Reserve.

However, recently, biologists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have found a new way to culture and process plants from seed to the lab. The plants, so far, have successfully acclimatized to the greenhouse environment. The ghost orchids also showed high rates of survival when planted to wild as well.  Out of 80 plants, 70 orchids survived the natural habitat at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Collier County, Florida. The biologists also found success with ghost orchids planted at the Naples Botanical Garden.

  • Ghost Orchids came into limelight when they featured in non-fiction book, Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. In the story, the ghost orchid flowers in the Collier Country are stolen by some thieves. Later a movie was also based on this book. K. Christi has also penned a fiction novel, ‘Ghost Orchid’, based on the ghost orchid flowers at Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
  • It is also known as palm polly and white frog orchid.
  • The Belgian plant collector Jean Jules Linder spotted the plant in Cuba in 1844 for the first time and in his honor, it is called ‘’
  • Due to its rare presence, the ghost orchids find place on the CITES Appendix II and thus, are protected by Florida State Laws.

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  • Sep 12, 2021

7 Facts About The Rare Ghost Orchid

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

facts about a ghost orchid

Living up to it's name in less fortunate ways due to being an endangered species, the Ghost Orchid population is sparsely scattered in Cuba, flooded forests of Florida and the Bahamas. Despite being native to remote swamp land and inhabiting small wooded islands, the Ghost Orchid still faces an array of threats from climate change, human poaching, pollinator and habitat loss which has unfortunately experienced steady decline over the years. This unique floral phantom is aptly named for multiple reasons as its white flowers have a vaguely spectral appearance which then seem to hover in the forest due to an illusion created by the leafless plant. Here to honour its haunting mystique, this article delves into the world of the Ghost Orchid.

1. Once a year bloom- or not at all

Blooming between June-August just once per year for a couple of weeks this orchid can sometimes also take the year off as only around 10% of Ghost Orchids may bloom in any given year, making them an unreliable bloomer. To add insult to injury, as few as 10% of these may only be pollinated so not many people get the chance to witness these beauties.

2. Scales instead of leaves

Known as a "leafless" orchid as the leaves have been reduced to scales with more mature plants seeming to lack foliage, the Ghost orchid also appears to have a reduced stem, often difficult to see if you manage to find one in the wild. Due to its lack of foliage, these orchids appear to be suspended in air as they attach themselves to tree trunks via a few roots.

3. Mostly made of roots

Consisting mostly of roots instead of leaves and a stem, the Ghost orchid typically grows on tree bark without any soil requirement due to it being an epiphyte. Tending to grow on the main trunk or large boughs of a living tree several feet from the ground, epiphytes don't cause any trouble as they do not seek nutrients from their hosts.

4. The roots act like leaves

While the Ghost Orchid may not have leaves to speak of, photosynthesis still occurs in the roots are they contain chlorophyll, rendering leaves unnecessary. Not only do the roots anchor the orchid to the tree, they are the main source of taking in water and nutrients. The roots also feature pneumatodes which are small white marks which perform the gas exchange needed for respiration and photosynthesis. When the orchid isn't in bloom, the mass of roots have been compared to unremarkable bits of green linguine as stated by National Geographic's Douglas Main.

5. Floating forest flowers

As discussed in the intro, the bark of the trees where the orchids grow blends in with the Ghost Orchids greenish roots, allowing them to be well camouflaged when not in bloom season high up in the canopies. During the short period when in bloom, a thin spike extending outward from the roots can be seen which acts as a suspender, allowing the flower to dangle as if its floating freely in the air which makes this orchid a sight to behold. The lower petal known as the labellum, has two long and lateral tendrils which twist slightly downward, resembling the hind legs of a jumping frog.

6. Fruity scent in the morning time

Scientists have discovered that the most intense fragrance emitted is in the early morning, with the fruity scent resembling that of an apple. Their sweet nighttime scent attracts giant sphinx moths that pollinate the plants with their proboscis –long enough to reach pollen hidden deep within the flower of the ghost orchid.

7. The specialist pollinator

For ghost orchids, the long-tongued pollinator known as the giant sphinx moth which is native to South and Central America but pretty rare in the continent of North America is widely described as the sole pollinator of ghost orchids, thanks to its long proboscis and a lack of evidence for any other pollinators. Its larvae feed on the pond apple tree, which is also an important host for ghost orchids.

The pollen of the ghost orchid is deep within its flowers so can only be pollinated by an insect with a long enough proboscis to reach all the way down inside. Darwin actually identified the need for this particular pollinator to have an unusually lengthy tongue in order to successfully pollinate such a long flower.

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A color illustration of multiple species of orchids against a black background

Magazine Articles

Secret Garden

Unearthing the mysteries of orchids.

By Jenny Rogers, Senior Editor & Writer, Nature Conservancy magazine | November 09, 2020

Winter 2020

Jenny Rogers

Sliding down a steep creek side somewhere in western Maryland, a group of botanists and ecologists are on the hunt. It’s a cloudy day in May 2018, and they’re searching for an elusive orchid called the white lady’s slipper, or Cypripedium candidum . 

The members of the group have turned off the GPS functions on their phones to keep their location secret. This plant is literally off the map—not only because it is rare but also because it is highly sought after by collectors. 

The white lady’s slipper is named for its fragile flowers, which vaguely resemble tiny moccasins and have a sweet smell. Much of the orchid’s native habitat has been paved over, but it grows freely somewhere in this lush landscape— a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Orchids can be fickle and fascinating plants, and scientists are really only beginning to understand them. Some remain dormant underground for years, presumed dead by those looking for them. Some bloom for only one day each year. And all germinate from seeds as small as dust. Many questions surrounding these plants—including how they’ll fare in a changing climate—remain unanswered.

Color illustration of Stream Orchid.

On the preserve in Maryland, Deborah Landau, an ecologist for TNC, leads the crew that includes Dennis Whigham, a botanist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, down a muddy bank before climbing nimbly up another ridge. Whigham is no stranger to getting his hands dirty in the field. He has devoted much of his life to studying orchids around the world, tracking them down where they thrive in hard-to-get-to habitats like steamy jungles, swamps and bogs, often tucked into the branches of tall mature trees.

With an estimate of at least 25,000 species in existence, and new species being discovered regularly, orchids are believed to be the world’s most diverse family of flowering plants. They outnumber all mammals, reptiles and birds combined. And scientists estimate that they account for about 10% of all flowering plant life on Earth. 

An illustration of a bee swarm orchid

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But that impressive quantity and diversity have made ensuring their future a costly challenge. Of the 200-odd species of orchids native to North America, more than half are threatened or endangered in some part of their range. 

Several research endeavors have cropped up in the United States to better understand North America’s orchids—the largest among them a nationwide collaboration led by Whigham. To build a unified bank of research, he launched a joint effort in 2012 between the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Botanic Garden called the North American Orchid Conservation Center. The center is working with more than 50 groups and dozens of volunteers to collect samples of every native orchid species in the U.S. and Canada. Each sample gives researchers a chance to better understand how the plants germinate and reproduce. 

On this overcast spring day, the orchid hunters are moving one step closer to solving these biological mysteries. Past an exposure of bedrock, beneath a tangle of brush on the cliff side above them, they find what they’ve been looking for: the delicate blossoms of the  Cypripedium candidum . 

“There’s so little known about many orchids,” says Whigham. “Very few of them have been studied in detail by anybody.” The center aims to address that research gap and in the process help scientists—who are going to some extreme lengths to study this enigmatic plant family—conserve and restore orchid populations across North America. 

An illustration of a fairy slipper orchid.

Orchids begin life as seeds so minute they can only be seen under a microscope. They do not contain any stored food to fuel their growth. Instead, when seeds land in soil or on trees, they rely on a suite of host fungi nearby to supply the nutrients and other resources they require.

“You’re never going to see this fungus unless you’re looking at the [orchid] roots or you’re looking into soil with a microscope,” says Melissa McCormick, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, who collaborates with Whigham. “That has meant that these orchids and these fungi are very poorly studied and not a lot has been known about them.” 

That’s changing, though, as volunteers collect seeds, segments of the plant’s roots and a single leaf from native orchids and send them to the North American Orchid Conservation Center. The leaf tissue, stored in little coin envelopes, goes into a genetic bank for DNA research into the plants. Fungi are extracted from the plant roots. The lab grows the fungus in petri dishes, sequences its DNA and stores it long-term in test tubes. 

Quote : Dennis Whigham

There’s so little known about orchids. Very few of them have been studied in detail.

Dennis Whigham

The result is a growing body of samples from across the United States and Canada—enough to help researchers study these complex interrelationships in new ways and learn how to propagate orchids with help from their symbiotic fungi. 

That research has become even more important as orchids face increasing threats. Habitat loss, poaching, and deer foraging have reduced orchid numbers. Some species, Whigham says, could become viewable only in botanic gardens, like endangered animals found mostly in zoos. 

Even less studied is how a changing climate will affect these plants. Wetter or drier weather could hurt the fungus in the soil, Whigham says, which could alter an orchid’s ability to germinate. Changes in seasonality, or phenology, could hinder the plants’ ability to reproduce. 

An illustration of pink lady's slipper orchid with bees

The Science of Seduction

Many orchids achieve reproduction by rewarding thirsty pollinators with nectar in return for their pollen-delivery services. But about one-third of orchids use deceptive strategies to coax insects or small birds to their flower. This trickery can take many forms. 

The spider orchid (Brassia caudata ), with its long, limb-like petals and sepals, masquerades as the prey of female spider-hunter wasps, inducing the insects to grasp and then sting the spider-shaped flower. Before a fruitless attempt at predation is complete, the wasp bumps into a package of pollen that clings to its head.

Some orchids, such as the stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea ), use a technique called “brood-site imitation” to trick flies into laying their eggs inside the flower. The stream orchid produces a scent that mimics the smell of honeydew, a liquid produced by aphids. Some flies lay their eggs near aphid nests to give their young a ready meal when they hatch. In this case, the back of the bamboozled fly skims off some pollen from inside the flower as the insect exits the flower. 

In another strategy called “food deception,” the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule , seen here) lures a bee to a slit in its flower pouch by excreting a sweet smell. To escape the pouch, the bee must pass under the stigma, a floral reproductive organ, and then squeeze through one of two openings—each with a cache of pollen above it that hitches onto the bee’s body as it makes its escape.

One study of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) found that warm spring temperatures can disrupt the plant-pollinator relationship. The early spider orchid lures young male bees to its flowers by emitting a scent that mimics the sex pheromone of female bees. To avoid competing with female bees for the males’ attention, the flower needs to bloom after male bees emerge from winter hibernation but before female bees do. Through evolution, these timings have synchronized, Whigham says. “But because of climate change, they’re getting out of synchrony.”

Many orchids use pollination strategies like the early spider orchid’s to lure specific insects or birds with the false promise of food or sex (see “The Science of Seduction,” above). When the deception results in an encounter, the unrewarded pollinator is loaded up with the orchid’s genetic material, poised to deposit it on the next orchid it visits. But not all pollinator-orchid relationships are known. 

In 2018, conservation scientist Peter Houlihan and photographer Mac Stone set out to get proof of how the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), one of the most well-known but inscrutable flowers on Earth, reproduces. It was long believed that the ghost orchid was pollinated by the giant sphinx moth because the insect’s proboscis, or tongue (which can unfurl to twice the length of its body), is designed to sip nectar from long-tubed flowers like the ghost orchid, but no one had ever photographed the moth in action.

An illustration of a showy lady's slipper.

That October, Stone found himself strapped to a cypress tree, 50 feet in the air, checking a remote camera trained on the largest known ghost orchid, the “super ghost.” It’s located in the National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the Florida Everglades. Houlihan, strapped nearby, motioned to Stone with his hands: Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Did Stone get the shot? 

Stone used his phone to snap a photo of the camera’s screen and sent it to Houlihan, who gaped at what he saw. The photo showed a moth interacting with the ghost orchid. Other images showed additional species of moths. Houlihan finally had evidence that the long-held theory that only the giant sphinx pollinated the ghost orchid was wrong. The plant was not reliant on a single species of moth. Understanding the orchid’s reproductive biology may have been a difficult, years-long effort, but preserving the ghost might be a smidge easier than anyone had thought possible. 

The two celebrated while strapped to the tree. An article followed in the journal Nature. One more orchid mystery put to rest—kind of. Because even as scientists delighted in the knowledge that the ghost orchid’s future was not tied to a single insect, a host of new questions—including whether the giant sphinx actually pollinates the flower or just drinks its nectar—unfurled in its wake. 

Quote : Deborah Landau

There’s so much that we don’t know. But we know that when orchids show up, we’re doing something right.

Deborah Landau

Scientists like Houlihan have only begun to unravel the natural history of this vast plant family. In some cases, they’re discovering just how resilient orchids can be.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, McCormick is studying an orchid so rare it was thought to have vanished until it was spotted in 2009 on TNC’s Nassawango Creek Preserve. The plant (Platanthera x canbyi) is a hybrid of two orchids that are considered rare in the state: the white fringed and the crested yellow.

Deborah Landau, the TNC ecologist who helps manage the property, considers the reappearance of the orchid a sign of the plant’s vigor. The last recorded sighting of the lemon-colored orchid had been 18 years earlier—just after a wildfire burned through the landscape. There had been no sign of the plant since. Until suddenly—after controlled burns—the plant was spotted thriving on a former loblolly pine plantation that had been clear-cut and then restored to ecological health. 

“It’s just crazy to think that these plants want exact factors,” says Landau. “But we do a fire and boom! When the right conditions are there, they come back. It just gives me a lot of hope.”

An illustration of a spider orchid.

McCormick, along with a postdoctoral fellow in her lab, Ida Hartvig, is studying hybrid orchids from Nassawango Creek and other landscapes, including TNC’s Green Swamp Preserve in North Carolina. They are analyzing, among other things, how orchid hybrids form and how and what hybrids suggest about the development of new species.

“If, for example, the hybrid used some totally different fungi from what either of its parent species use, then it might grow in a very different place,” says McCormick. “It might develop into a new species because it then would not have the opportunity to back-cross with either of the parents.”

Looking at patterns in the genomes can help researchers determine how recently the plants have begun to distinguish themselves as new species. In other words, the scientists are studying real-time evolution to better understand the genetic diversity of the orchids and how to restore them. 

Orchids are rarely incorporated into landscape-restoration plans because of the complexity of their needs, says David Remucal, curator of endangered plants at the University of Minnesota. Remucal is leading an effort at the University’s Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to sample every orchid native to the state—a collection effort that shares plant matter and collaborates with the North American Orchid Conservation Center. 

But, Remucal argues, with more knowledge that could change. He’s also leading an effort to incorporate the white lady’s slipper into a prairie restoration project on TNC’s Regal Meadow Preserve in Minnesota. No one is certain it will work the first time. Remucal wonders whether such recently replanted ground will have the necessary fungi to support the orchids. But it’s a start, he says. 

At the same time, the particularity of orchids that makes them hard to restore also makes them a sign for conservationists like Landau that other restoration efforts are working—in her case at both Nassawango Creek and the undisclosed preserve in western Maryland.

On that spring day, while the team observed and documented the condition of the white lady’s slipper, Landau considered what its presence means for the landscape itself, and the years of work her team has put into protecting it.

“There’s so much that we don’t know,” Landau says. “But we know that when [orchids] show up, we’re doing something right. It’s almost whatever the opposite of a canary in the coal mine is. It shows us that we’re on the right track in a really pretty way.”

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Jenny Rogers

Jenny Rogers is a writer and editor for Nature Conservancy magazine, covering books, science and conservation. 

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facts about a ghost orchid

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Orchids are dizzying in their diversity. Over the past 80 million years, some 25,000 wild species have taken root on six continents, in nearly every kind of habitat. Representing a full fourth of the world's flowering plants, there are four times as many orchid species as mammals, and twice as many as birds.

First row, left to right: Bulbophyllum mastersianum; Pheladenia deformis; Masdevallia coccinea; Trigonidium egertonianum; Regalia (Masdevallia) princeps; Caladenia (Leptoceras) menziesii Second row, left to right: orchids Crocker Range Collection; Pterostylis sp.; Gongora quinquenervis, Anti-pollinator: a crab spider is lurking on a flower of Gongora, hoping to catch a bee or other insect; Bulbophyllum blumei; Lepanthes antilocapra; Lockhartia amoena Third row, left to right: studio portrait of a crab spider orchid; Aspasia epidendroides; Chiloglottis sp. a sexually deceptive species.; Pterostylis sp.; orchids tenom agricultural centre; Calanthe pulchra

Love and Lies

How do you spread your genes around when you're stuck in one place? By tricking animals, including us, into falling in love.

We animals don't give plants nearly enough credit. When we want to dismiss a fellow human as ineffectual or superfluous, we call him a "potted plant." A "vegetable" is how we refer to a person reduced to utter helplessness, having lost most of the essential tools for getting along in life. Yet plants get along in life just fine, thank you, and did so for millions of years before we came along. True, they lack such abilities as locomotion, the command of tools and fire, the miracles of consciousness and language. To animals like ourselves, these are the tools for living we deem the most "advanced," which is not at all surprising, since they have been the shining destinations of our evolutionary journey thus far. But the next time you're tempted to celebrate human consciousness as the pinnacle of evolution, stop to consider where you got that idea. Human consciousness. Not exactly an objective source.

So let us celebrate some other pinnacles of evolution, the kind that would get a lot more press if natural history were written by plants rather than animals. (I suppose an article by a biped named Pollan will have to do.) For while we were nailing down locomotion, consciousness, and language, the plants were hard at work developing a whole other bag of tricks, taking account of the key existential fact of plant life: rootedness. How do you spread your genes around when you're stuck in place? You get really, really good at things like biochemistry, at engineering, design, and color, and at the art of manipulating the "higher" creatures, up to and including animals like us. I'm thinking specifically of one of the largest, most diverse families of flowering plants: the 25,000 species of orchids that, over the past 80 million years or so, have managed to colonize six continents and virtually every conceivable terrestrial habitat, from the deserts of western Australia to the cloud forests of Central America, from the forest canopy to the underground, from remote Mediterranean mountaintops to living rooms, offices, and restaurants the world over.

The secret of their success? In a word, deception. Though some orchids do offer conventional food rewards to the insects and birds that carry their pollen from plant to plant, roughly a third of orchid species long ago figured out, unconsciously of course, that they can save on the expense of nectar and increase the odds of reproducing by evolving a clever deceit, whether that ruse be visual, aromatic, tactile, or all three at once. Some orchids lure bees with the promise of food by mimicking the appearance of nectar-producing flowers, while others, as in the case of a Dracula orchid, attract gnats by producing an array of nasty scents, from fungus and rotten meat to cat urine and baby diaper. (Believe me, I've sniffed them.) Some orchids promise shelter, deploying floral forms that mimic insect burrows or brood rooms. Others mimic male bees in flight, hoping to incite territorial combat that results in pollination.

But perhaps the most clever deceit of all is offered by those orchids that hold out the promise of sex. And not exactly normal sex. Really weird sex, in fact.

Hoping to observe some of this plant sex, said biped recently journeyed to Sardinia, a windswept, mountainous, and lightly populated island 120 miles off the west coast of Italy that has long been known for floral biodiversity and human kidnapping. (Deceit is evidently very much in the air.) I went in search of one of the most ingenious and diabolical of orchids: the Ophrys. (Some botanists call it the "prostitute orchid.") I'd been eager to lay eyes on this orchid and meet its hapless pollinator ever since reading about its reproductive strategy, which involves what my field guide referred to as "sexual deception" and "pseudocopulation." What I learned of the prostitute orchid forced me to radically revise my estimation of what a clever plant is capable of doing to a credulous animal.

In the case of this particular Ophrys, that animal is a relative of the bumblebee. The orchid offers no nectar or pollen reward; rather, it seduces male bees with the promise of bee sex and then insures its pollination by frustrating precisely the desire it has excited. The orchid accomplishes its sexual deception by mimicking the appearance, scent, and even the tactile experience of a female bee. The flower, in other words, traffics in something very much like metaphor: This stands for that. Not bad for a vegetable.

Orchid hunting can be arduous in many places, but in the mountains of Sardinia Ophrys orchids grow like roadside weeds. When they bloom in April you can spot them from a moving car. Close up, the lower lip, or labellum, of these diminutive orchids bears an uncanny resemblance to a female bee as viewed from behind. This pseudobee, which in some Ophrys species comes complete with fake fur and what appear to be elbows and folded iridescent wings, looks as though she has her head buried in a green flower formed by the actual flower's sepals. To reinforce the deception, the orchid gives off a scent that has been shown to closely match the pheromones of the female bee.

When it comes to getting an orchid pollinated, sexual deception has an uneven success rate (more on that later), but when it does work, it works like this: The real male bee alights on the beelike labellum and attempts to mate, or in the words of one botanical reference, begins "performing movements which look like an abnormally vigorous and prolonged attempt at copulation." In the midst of these fruitless exertions, the bee jostles the orchid's column (a structure that houses both the male and female sexual organs), and two yellow sacs packed with pollen (called the pollinia) are stuck to his back with a quick-drying gluelike substance. Frustration mounts, until eventually it dawns on the bee that he has been had. He abruptly flies off, pollinia firmly attached, in frantic search of more authentic female companionship.

There was something poignant about the bee I spotted, flying around madly with what looked like a chubby pair of yellow oxygen tanks strapped to his back. He'd been deluded by the promise of sex—bee sex—when in fact all that was on offer was plant sex, and unbeknownst to the bee, now searching for a second, more satisfactory liaison, he was right in the middle of that act. Botanists have been known to refer to pollen-carrying bees as "flying penises," but of course most of the world's bees perform in that role unwittingly, with food rather than sex on the brain. Not so for the poor, deluded orchid bee.

The pollination strategy of the Ophrys is, like that of so many orchids, ingenious, intricate, wily, and seemingly improbable—so much so that proponents of intelligent design sometimes point to orchids as proof that the hand of a higher intelligence must be at work in nature. (And a rather sadistic intelligence at that.) Yet the peculiarities of orchid sex actually offer one of the great case studies of natural selection, as Charles Darwin himself under­stood. Darwin was fascinated by orchid pollination strategies, and though he was puzzled by the purpose of Ophrys' s uncanny resemblance to bees (pseudocopulation wasn't observed until 1916), he taught us much of what we know about these plants in The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, the volume he published immediately after The Origin of Species. Indeed, some scientists believe that had he published his orchid book first, the theory of natural selection might have encountered less skepticism than it did. Why? Because in orchids Darwin identified floral structures "as perfect as the most beautiful adaptations in the animal kingdom." He painstakingly demonstrated how even the most unlikely features of these flowers serve a reproductive function, and many of these structures are so perfectly adapted, both to the plant's requirements and the morphology of its pollinators, that they offered Darwin elegant proofs of his outlandish theory.

In one famous case, putting the final QED on Darwin's proof that evolution had tailored a flower to lure and exploit a specific pollinator had to wait a few decades. Attempting to explain why the star orchid of Madagascar would secrete a drop of nectar at the tail end of a foot-long floral spur, where no known pollinator could possibly get at it, Darwin hypoth­esized the existence of a moth with a 12-inch-long tongue, an unlikely creature that had never been observed. Vindication arrived a couple decades after Darwin's death, when entomologists unfurled the tongue of a newly discovered hawk moth and found that it measured nearly a foot long.

The orchid's baroque pollination strategies do raise challenging questions for the evolutionist, however. Since natural selection seldom rewards the unnecessary complication, why haven't all orchids stuck with the more straightforward pollination strategies based on nectar reward? And how in the world did their sexual practices get so elaborate? As for the hoodwinked pollinators, what, if anything, do they gain? If the answer is nothing but frustration, then why wouldn't natural selection eventually weed out insects so foolhardy as to spend their time mating with nature's version of the inflatable love doll?

Botanists and evolutionary biologists have come up with fascinating answers to many of these questions. John Alcock, an evolutionary biologist and author of An Enthusiasm for Orchids, proposes two explanations for why some orchids would have evolved to avoid a simple nectar reward. When botanists experimented by adding a nectar reward to a normally nectarless orchid, they found that the pollinators hung around longer, happily visiting other blooms on the same and nearby plants. This does not suit the orchid's interests, however, since inbreeding results in lower quality seeds. By comparison, outcrossing, or mixing one's genes with distant mates, increases vigor and variation in one's offspring, maximizing fitness. The sexual frustration of a deluded bee turns out to be an essential part of the orchid's reproductive strategy. Determined not to make the same mistake again, the bee travels some distance and, if things work out for the orchid, ends up pseudocopulating (and leaving his package of pollen) with an orchid a ways off. That distant orchid is likely to look and smell ever so slightly different from the first, and some botanists believe these subtle variations from plant to plant are part of the orchid's strategy to prevent bees from learning not to fall for a flower. "Imperfect floral mimicry" is the botanical term for this adaptation. Think of it: The very imperfection of the orchid's mimicry may itself be part of the perfection of its reproductive strategy.

Another reason so many orchids have gotten out of the restaurant business may have to do with the benefits of developing a relationship with a single, highly devoted pollinator. Nectar, besides being metabolically expensive for the flower to produce, is beloved by so many different animals that it attracts all sorts of riffraff that may not deliver your pollen to the right target. But if you produce a scent that attracts only the males of one particular species of bee, you can insure that your pollen will end up precisely where you want it: on the stigma of a far-flung orchid of your own kind.

The exactitude of the perfume business may also help explain the astounding diversity of the orchid family. A mutation producing even a slight change in an orchid's scent could, strictly by chance, turn out to be the key that unlocks the sexual attentions of a new pollinator, while at the same time completely turning off the original pollinator. In this way, variations in the chemistry of floral scent can function much as geographic isolation does in the creation of new species, by preventing new mutant flowers from being pollinated by older ones. The novel orchid might evolve in genetic isolation from its forebears—a prerequisite for creating a new species.

Orchids have excelled at spinning off new species, and yet there are remarkably few orchid plants in the world. Their relative rarity in the landscape puts a premium on highly customized pollination strategies to deploy their pollen as efficiently as possible—unlike grasses, for instance, which can simply broadcast their pollen on the wind. Yet their small numbers ensure their survival. If deceptive orchids were much more common, their ruses would no longer work, since they depend on the ubiquity of honest flowers. Orchid deception can succeed only in a world where most things in nature really are what they seem: where the smell of rotting meat signals rotting meat, where flowers really do offer nectar and don't dress up as bugs.

It seems fair to say that when it comes to their own sex, orchids have opted for quality rather than quantity. For while sexual deception doesn't fool all of the pollinators all of the time, it does fool some of them some of the time, and for an orchid that is quite enough. That's because each pollinium contains a stupendous number of pollen grains, and once they're delivered, every resulting seedpod contains an equally stupendous number of seeds. So while sex among the orchids may be a rare and intricately choreographed affair, what happens after the match is made is all about profligacy and chance. Orchid seeds are so tiny and minimalist they don't even contain a source of food for the developing embryo. For this, the orchid must (once again) count on the kindness of strangers—in this case, that of an endophytic fungus. If all goes right (and here again, it seldom does), the tendrils of the fungus infiltrate the orchid seed and provide the nutrients that the developing embryo needs to grow. What does the fungus get out of the relationship? Don't be so sure it gets anything—these are orchids, after all.

Gaspar Silvera is an orchid hunter and breeder in Panama given to wearing straw fedoras and married to a woman named Flor. An agronomist by training, Silvera has, since retiring from government service, devoted himself to rescuing orchids from the threat of development and to the painstaking work of propagating them. Photographer Christian Ziegler and I flew to his nursery in Chilibre after Silvera phoned us to report that one of his Coryanthes, the Central American bucket orchid, a species notoriously difficult to keep happy in captivity, had bloomed. We were hoping to witness one of nature's most dramatic PG-rated pollination scenes.

By the time we got to the nursery, the canary yellow flower, a surprisingly ungainly Rube Goldberg contraption, was already fading, though it still gave off a powerful perfume of apricots and eucalyptus. The flower had thrown open its elaborately engineered petals just a few days before, and the spicy-sweet perfume had summoned out of the surrounding woods a band of male euglossine bees, a sleek, stingless, iridescent relative of the bumblebee. The bees competed with one another for space on the slick curves of the intricately sculpted flower, directly above a labellum that forms a deep bucket, into which the flower drips a clear, slightly viscous liquid.

Nectar it is not.

Visiting bees busy themselves scraping fragrances from the waxy surface of the flower using their front legs; they then transfer the scents to tibia sacs carried on their rear legs like little wallets. Exactly what they're up to wasn't understood until 1966, when a botanist named Stefan Vogel figured out that the bees were collecting the chemical building blocks needed to create a scent. Most animals that rely on scents to attract a mate produce it themselves; not the euglossine bee, which forages for a specific set of ingredients, gathering them not only from orchids but also from certain leaves and fungi, and then mixes up the perfume by "hand." Once he's concocted his mixture, the bee spreads it on his body and flaps his wings to release a captivating scent of camphor and flowers to summon a female.

But the bucket orchid exacts a steep price for its contribution to this perfume. As the bees jostle each other for scents, one or more of them is apt to lose his footing on the slick petal and plunge into the bucket. This wouldn't be a problem, except the viscous liquid in the bucket renders the bee's wings temporarily useless. So the bee struggles mightily to clamber up the slippery walls of the bucket until he stumbles upon a series of steps, which conduct him up and out of the pool through a narrow passageway leading out the back of the flower. As the dazed and sopping bee squeezes himself through the tunnel, he passes beneath a spring-loaded device that (you guessed it!) claps a pair of yellow pollinia onto his back. If all goes according to (orchid) plan, the bee dries off his wings, flies to another Coryanthes, splashes into the bucket again, and on his way out through the tunnel unwittingly snags his yellow backpack on tiny hooks adapted for precisely that purpose. Pollination accomplished, the bucket orchid closes up shop, collapsing its extravagant petals into a wad of crumpled yellow tissue.

The case of the Coryanthes is a happy example of an orchid and its pollinator benefiting mutually, but such is not always the case. Although the euglossine bee escapes with his wallet full of scents, that's more than you can say for some other orchids' hapless dupes. If it's starting to sound as though I don't trust orchids, that's because I've seen what they can do to some of my fellow animals. There's a video on YouTube, a riveting snippet of interspecies porn, in which you can watch a wasp be utterly bamboozled, and then humiliated, by an Australian tongue orchid. The tongue orchid (Cryptostylis) lures its pollinator by deploying a scent closely resembling the pheromone of the female wasp (Lissopimpla excelsa) . The male wasp alights on the tonguelike labellum, tail first, and commences to copulate with the flower, probing its interior with the tip of his abdomen until it bumps into the sticky pollinia, which attach themselves to the insect's posterior like a pair of yellow tails.

Having to play pin the tail on the pollinator is only the beginning of the wasp's humiliation. For with the tongue orchid we have passed beyond pseudocopulation into a realm even more perverse: More often than not, the wasp, in the throes of his misguided sexual exertions, actually ejaculates onto the flower.

Surely this represents the height of maladaptive behavior, and natural selection could be expected to deal harshly with a creature foolish enough to squander its genes having sex with a flower. ("Costly sperm wastage," is how the literature describes it.) That would be bad news for both the wasp and the orchid that depends on him. But as with so much else in the bizarre world of orchid sex, the matter is not quite so simple.

It appears that in some insect species, such as Lissopimpla excelsa , females can reproduce with or without sperm from a male. With it, they produce the usual ratio of male and female offspring; without sperm, they produce only male offspring. How convenient—for the tongue orchid, that is. By inducing wasps to waste their sperm on its flowers, tongue orchids are decreasing the amount of sperm available to female wasps, thereby assuring themselves an even larger population of pollinators. Not only that, but the overabundance of male wasps increases competition for females, which makes the desperate wasps less picky in their choice of mates and that much more likely to fall for a flower.

What about the poor wasp? Why hasn't natural selection killed off an insect so dumb as to have sex with flowers? The best explanation I've heard is from John Alcock, who says that although the wasp may occasionally waste his genes on a plant, his "extreme sexual enthusiasm" is still a better reproductive strategy for an insect than being cautious about one's choice of mate. On balance, having sex with anything that moves yields more offspring, even if it also leads to occasional romantic disaster.

To learn all this about orchids is to admire them more but, perhaps, love them less. And to wonder if we too have fallen prey to their deceptive charms. Like the scent-gathering euglossine bees, we use them to communicate our romantic intentions and lure mates, extracting their essence for perfumes and wearing them in corsages. Orchids have served us in this capacity since at least 1818, when William Cattley, an English plantsman, rescued a discarded orchid bulb that had been used as packing material in a shipment of tropical plants. The flowering of that specimen ignited a Victorian passion for orchids that has never really subsided.

The very name of the plant comes from the Greek word for testicle, referring not to the plant's flowers but its bulbs, organs that have long been endowed with aphrodisiac properties. But it doesn't take a Freudian to discern a strong sexual subtext in the passion for these flowers, especially among men, who any visit to an orchid show will tell you suffer disproportionately from "orchidelirium"—the Victorians' term for the madness these flowers inspire. Victorians were offended by the "blatant sexuality" of orchids, according to Eric Hansen, the author of Orchid Fever ; he isn't referring to plant or insect sexuality either. "Prurient apparitions," is how Victorian critic John Ruskin described these flowers.

Prurient? Is it possible that humans can look at an orchid and, like the deluded orchid bees or male dupe wasps, see an apparition of female anatomy? (Georgia O'Keeffe certainly did.) Could it be that plant sex and animal sex have gotten their wires crossed in human brains just as they have among the bugs? That accident of evolution has proved another happy one for the orchid, for look how much we humans now do for these flowers: the prices paid, the risks to life and limb endured, the pains taken …

Those were my thoughts as I watched Gaspar Silvera deploy a pair of slender forceps to remove a pollinium from a bucket orchid that had failed to entrap a euglossine bee. ("I suppose you could say that I too am manipulated by orchids," he'd explained at the end of a shaggy tale about the lengths he goes to secure choice specimens.) Working with the steady hand of a jeweler, Silvera used the forceps to grab the base of the pollinium and then pressed it to a slit in the column of another bloom. Five years from now, Silvera may find himself with a precious new flower—and the orchid will have offspring it would otherwise not have had.

Ever since the first human-hybridized orchid bloomed (the earliest in the Western world was recorded in 1856), we humans have become important orchid pollinators too—more intentional perhaps than the orchid bees, but lured into advancing the orchid's interests just the same, assisting in its quest for world domination. Today there are some 100,000 registered hybrid orchids, most of them the offspring of improbable marriages among far-flung plants arranged by, and literally inconceivable without, us.

Not that any of this was ever in the orchid's plan. In evolution there is no plan, of course, only blind chance. But the moment that the orchid stumbled upon one of the keys to human desire and used it to unlock our hearts, it conquered a whole new world—our world—and enlisted a vast new crew of credulous animals more than happy to do its bidding. Let's face it: We're all orchid dupes now.

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    Home Ornamental Gardens Flowers Orchids Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow: Ghost Orchid Information And Facts Sign up to our newsletter (Image credit: Wirestock) By Mary H. Dyer last updated January 06, 2023 What is a ghost orchid, and where do ghost orchids grow?

  2. 11 Enchanting Quirks of the Rare Ghost Orchid

    1. It only blooms once a year for a few weeks—or not at all Aside from their flowers, ghost orchids keep a low profile on their host tree. Rhona Wise / AFP / Getty Images The ghost orchid (...

  3. Facts About The Ghost Orchid

    Scientific name: Dendrophylax lindenii Other common names: Ghost orchid, white frog orchid, palm polly It is a rare species of orchids because it is very difficult to cultivate in home conditions. It loves its natural habitat that includes marshes and swamps where there are a lot of damp and humid conditions.

  4. Ghost Orchid

    The ghost orchid is leafless but has photosynthetic roots that allow it to produce sugars in the presence of sunlight. Its roots engage in a symbiotic relationship with a type of fungus that helps it gather nutrients in exchange for extra sugars. Without this fungus, the orchid would be unable to thrive.

  5. Dendrophylax lindenii

    Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid (a common name also used for Epipogium aphyllum) is a rare perennial epiphyte from the orchid family ( Orchidaceae ). It is native to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. [2] [4] Other common names include palm polly and white frog orchid . Name

  6. Ghost Orchid Growing & Care Guide

    The Ghost Orchid, scientifically known as Dendrophylax lindenii, is an enigmatic and mysterious flowering plant that has captured the fascination of botanists, nature enthusiasts, and orchid lovers alike. This rare and elusive orchid is native to the swamps and wetlands of Cuba, the Bahamas, and southern Florida in the United States.

  7. Homestead Stories: The Ghost Orchid • Insteading

    The ghost orchid is thought to pollinated by the giant sphinx month, the only flying insect with mouth parts long enough to reach into the ghost orchids extended nectar spur.

  8. Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce

    Science Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce Incredible photos show multiple species pollinate the rare and enigmatic flower, which is good news for the endangered species. By Douglas Main photographs by Carlton Ward JR., Mac Stone Published 25 Jul 2019, 19:09 BST Moths pollinating rare ghost orchids.

  9. Dendrophylax lindenii (Ghost Orchid, Palm Polly): Go Orchids

    Benth. ex Rolfe Ghost Orchid, Palm Polly It was once believed that the night flying Giant Sphinx Moth, Cocytius antaeus, was the only insect in North America with a long enough proboscis to reach the nectar in this orchid's long spur and pollinate its flowers.

  10. Ghost orchid Facts for Kids

    Epipogium aphyllum, the ghost orchid (not to be confused with the American ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii) is a hardy myco-heterotrophic orchid lacking chlorophyll. It is famous for its unpredictable appearance; in many localities it has been seen just once. It is found in beech, oak, pine and spruce forests on base-rich soils.

  11. Florida's rare ghost orchids are getting cut off from water

    The ghost orchid is an unusual, and unusually beautiful, flower found only in Cuba and the flooded forests of South Florida, where there are about 2,000 of the plants. This species, which draws...

  12. Ghost Orchid l Rare and Unsual Orchid Variety

    Ghost Orchid Facts. The gorgeous plant most often known by the common name of the Ghost Orchid represents a truly magnificent species of flora. The fabulous botanical beauty also goes by a few other common names in parts of its native range, however. A few of these alternate terms include the white frog orchid and the palm polly.

  13. Some Interesting Facts Surrounding The Rare Ghost Orchid

    One of the most mysterious flowers that are one of the hardest to find are known as ghost orchids. These flowers are rarely seen in any controlled habitat maintained by man because they happen to be an endangered species.

  14. The Ghost Orchid: one of Britain's rarest plants

    Regarded as extinct Ghost Orchids were first discovered in Britain in 1854 but were only seen 11 times before the 1950s. They were seen regularly in a few Chilterns sites between 1953 and 1987 but then disappeared and were regarded as extinct until one plant was discovered in 2009.

  15. What Is A Ghost Orchid

    Ghost orchid plants are also known as white frog orchids, thanks to the frog-like shape of the odd-looking ghost orchid flowers. Read on for more ghost orchid information. Where Do Ghost Orchids Grow? With the exception of a handful of people, nobody knows exactly where ghost orchid plants grow.

  16. Epipogium aphyllum

    Some Plant facts Flowers. The ghost orchid is an extremely attractive plant, irrespective of its almost legendary status as a rarity. The flowers are large for the overall size of the orchid (often less than 10cm tall…) slightly pendent and delicately hued. The lip has a crinkled margin with a large, triangular central lobe, it is whitish to ...

  17. Ghost orchid pollination revealed for first time in incredible photos

    15:50 Rare ghost orchid has multiple pollinators, groundbreaking video reveals Scientists and photographers captured footage that upends what we know about the famed, endangered flower....

  18. Ghost Orchids Facts & Meaning, Ghost Orchid Flower Guide

    The florets don't have chlorophyll and hence, are white in nature. When they move in night, they look like creepy ghosts floating in air and thus, the name ghost orchids. The plant is also leafless and depends on the other tree to make food. As we write this, only 2,000 orchids are remained in Florida, making it a prized possession of the planet.

  19. Impressive Holy Ghost Orchid Facts That You Should Know!

    on 22 March 2022 ; Updated on 3 November 2023 Sub-edited by Pete Anderson ; Fact-checked by Nishtha Dixit 5 mins to read Share this article Holy ghost orchid flower is also known by the name dove orchid and holy spirit orchid due to its eccentric shape defining both of these names.

  20. 7 Facts About The Rare Ghost Orchid

    7. The specialist pollinator For ghost orchids, the long-tongued pollinator known as the giant sphinx moth which is native to South and Central America but pretty rare in the continent of North America is widely described as the sole pollinator of ghost orchids, thanks to its long proboscis and a lack of evidence for any other pollinators.

  21. The Secret Garden of Orchids

    In 2018, conservation scientist Peter Houlihan and photographer Mac Stone set out to get proof of how the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), one of the most well-known but inscrutable flowers on Earth, reproduces. It was long believed that the ghost orchid was pollinated by the giant sphinx moth because the insect's proboscis, or tongue ...

  22. 7 facts about the rare ghost orchid

    7 facts about the rare ghost orchid The ghost orchid is one of the rarest flowers in North America. The flower can be found only in South Florida, the Caribbean and Cuba.

  23. Love and Lies

    Love and Lies. 1 / 20. Orchids are dizzying in their diversity. Over the past 80 million years, some 25,000 wild species have taken root on six continents, in nearly every kind of habitat ...