Fakahatchee Ghosts

But no exorcisms, please these rare orchids are the stars of a hit movie and a best-selling book

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Entering a water-filled clearing about 20 feet wide, we navigate cypress knees poking up from the water and Spanish moss hanging from the trees. "And here’s a canoe orchid!" Owen exclaims. "See the rigid keel on the leaf?"

Owen is gesturing, lecturing, ticking off points on his fingers. "It’s the water, the canopy and the peat that makes it!" he says, waving a pencil. "The topography determines wetness—the strand fills with water during the rainy season, and the peat holds the water, keeps it humid so the trees can grow and protects it from desiccation and fire. The canopy shades the understory and moderates the temperature and cuts the wind." He plunges on, talking a mile a minute, deeper into the swamp.

"Now, here’s a night-scented orchid. It blew in on a hurricane two-three-four hundred years ago, and even though there’s no pollinator here, it turns out to be self-pollinating."

Owen’s knowledge of orchids wasn’t nearly so extensive when he first arrived at the strand, and as it happens, it was John Laroche who facilitated his education. Owen had been on the job just two months when Laroche and three Seminole Indians were caught with pillowcases and plastic bags full of rare plants, just like in the movie. "He had 92 orchids of nine species and some rare bromeliads," Owen says. (Laroche was fined $500 and banned from the park for six months.) "He was very friendly right after he was caught. We didn’t know the plants like he did, so he taught us about all the orchids he had." They included the ghost.

Ghost orchids were rather common before a 1977 frost decimated them and before too many people learned to brave the dark, wet swamp. Poachers like Laroche reduced the ghost’s numbers steeply. "It’s a touchdown if you find one," Owen says.

As if on cue, we suddenly find ourselves staring at a ghost. Owen points at it with his pencil. "This one has no spikes, so it hasn’t bloomed yet." At this stage, the plant is an unprepossessing little network of gray-green roots, like a mass of rubber bands stuck to the tree. "It blooms in June, July or August. They’re pollinated at night by the sphinx moth, with a six-inch wingspan and a six-and-a-quarter-inch tongue!"

We move on, but in a few moments, Owen is glancing around uncertainly, and I think of Chris Cooper as Laroche in Adaptation, reassuring an up-to-her-hips-in-swamp-water Streep, "We’re not lost." I stumble into a deep hole and barely catch my balance. Shadows are lengthening. I can hear the whir of night insects. It’s almost dusk when we emerge from the Fakahatchee. The hikers are gone.

Owen excitedly counts up the orchids we’ve seen. Eleven? Twelve? As we head back to the truck, he starts telling me about ferns.


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