IN THE FAKAHATCHEE STRAND — The visitors are barely out of their cars before the chorus starts: "I just want to see a ghost orchid!"
The ghost orchid is among the world's rarest flowers, the star of the popular book The Orchid Thief and the movie Adaptation and is the biggest lure to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in southwest Florida.
The preserve has been the scene of numerous orchid thefts, but park biologist Mike Owen promises to lead the group of orchid enthusiasts within arm's reach of the delicate plants during a four-hour swamp walk.
Orchids are available even in grocery stores now, but more species of orchids and bromeliads grow wild here than anywhere else in the country.
There are 315 ghost orchids scattered across the Fakahatchee's 85,000 acres, according to Owen. The odds of spotting one aren't good. They don't bloom until summer, and without their white flowers they're likely to blend into the swamp's lush shades of green and brown.
The park offers these Saturday tours during Florida's November to April dry season, when the orchids are easier to find.
The park lies about 70 miles west of Miami, across the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and a 5-mile stretch of road marked with "panther crossing" signs and a roadside stand called the "Skunk Ape Research Headquarters," the local equivalent of Big Foot hunters. The straight shot across the Tamiami Trail only seems flat; the road is gradually sloping toward sea level.
Low streams called sloughs flow throughout the strand, and Owen leads visitors into one recently filled with rainwater.
He raps on two culverts that serve as steps down from the trail. He says he's trying to scare out any alligators or snakes that might be hiding inside.
Nothing slithers out, though, so they wade into the cool water. They're protected from the sun by the canopy of tree growth above us.
A third of the group, six retirees from Ohio, abandons the tour at the water's edge.
Finding the flowers
Owen tallies the various plant and animal species encountered during the walk, penciling the names into a yellow, waterproof notebook. His notes document the locations and conditions of endangered plants; some are fighting off exotic weevils, others are growing where previous orchids were stolen. If he comes across a ghost orchid, it will get a detailed entry — how many roots it has, how high off the ground it is and other remarks.
The tour spots its first orchid just a few minutes after losing the retirees. The flat green roots of a ribbon orchid wind around a tree limb above their heads.
Owen is trusting the group not to come back and swipe plants. Past visitors have not been so courteous. Owen temporarily stopped taking tours into this particular slough after several orchids disappeared.
He's overjoyed to find tiny helmet and night-scented orchids growing in a blank patch in the moss on a tree — the scar of an orchid theft.
Their remote habitat and fear of the unknown protect the orchids that remain from all but the most determined thieves. "People are afraid of swamps. People are afraid of venomous snakes, alligators and water," he says. "They also don't like heat, humidity and mosquitoes. That's what keeps them from taking more."
After more than three hours in the water, the visitors have seen 10 orchid species on this walk — but not the ghost orchid.
Then Owen's hands suddenly go up in victory. A thin green ribbon with white dash lines appears to be tied around the rough bark of a pond apple tree.
It's a young ghost orchid.
Seeing a live ghost orchid isn't an experience that can be simulated in plastic, tourist Florida. Orchid nurseries famous in the state for creating hybrid species from two different orchid plants can't grow these delicate plants that seem to bloom in midair. Ghost orchids restrict themselves to very specific growing conditions, pollinated by just one species of moth. If the visitors don't see it now, they might never get another chance.
Owen is encouraged to find three active growing tips — the shiny ends of the ribbon — and deems the plant generally healthy. He's been watching it since 2003, and guesses it could be another decade before it blooms.