IN THE CORKSCREW SWAMP — To see the most famous ghost in Florida, you don’t go to a haunted house. Instead, you head for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Bonita Springs.
The sanctuary covers 13,000 acres, mostly made up of cypress swamps, about 2 ½ hours south of St. Petersburg. It contains the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in the world and the largest nesting colony of endangered wood storks in the nation. It’s also got plenty of alligators and other wetland creatures.
For flower fans, though, the most important thing in the Audubon-owned sanctuary is the world’s most amazing ghost orchid — and the world’s most accessible one, too.
The ghost orchid (or if you’re a scientist, Dendrophylax lindenii) spends most of the year looking like a nondescript green lump on the side of a tree. But when it blooms, it produces an extraordinary flower that looks like a spectral frog caught mid-leap.
When Carl Luer, a Sarasota surgeon, saw a ghost orchid in bloom for the first time, he was so taken by the sight that he became an avid orchid collector, wrote the first guidebook to Florida’s native orchids and co-founded of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
"Should one be lucky enough to see a flower, all else will seem eclipsed,” Luer wrote of the ghost.
An orchid fan named John Laroche found them so entrancing that he tried to steal one, thus becoming the title character of Susan Orlean’s bestseller The Orchid Thief, later made into the movie Adaptation.
No more than about 2,000 of them remain in Florida, mostly in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples, and Corkscrew Swamp. At Fakahatchee Strand and the panther refuge, viewing a ghost orchid requires wading or paddling deep into the swamp. But at Corkscrew you can keep your feet dry. All you have to do is hike about a mile down a boardwalk and look to your left.
I was part of a group that showed up at the sanctuary entrance on a rainy Monday afternoon recently. The dark clouds overhead kept us from getting too hot, and the breeze blowing through kept the mosquitoes and other insects away from us. We still worried that the rains that had slowed down our drive would return before we made it out to the spot where you could view the famous flower.
Inside the sanctuary’s nature center were some spectacular photos of the wildlife ahead. To pay your admission fee of $14, you have to go into the gift shop. There a soft-spoken attendant told us we should probably buy a boardwalk map ($3) and rent a pair of binoculars (another $3, plus you have to give up your car keys as security). Usually the staff has a spotting scope out on the boardwalk for viewing the orchid, he said, but the rain earlier in the day had convinced them to put it away for a while.
We probably should have stopped to put on hats and sunscreen, but we were in such a hurry we forgot about those essentials. We set out on the boardwalk at a brisk pace, passing by a thick stand of big green plants known as alligator flag, then passing a rather large alligator half-submerged in the dark water.
We encountered only a few other people strolling along taking in the sights — a vast, wet prairie at one point, and at another a pair of massive cypress trees that are on a national list of the tallest trees in the country. We also spotted a tiny yellow helmet orchid that was growing on the side of the boardwalk. The staff had roped off the endangered flower so no one would step on it accidentally.
At last, after walking 5,280 feet, we reached our objective. Although there was no staff member standing there with a spotting scope, we did see a big sign attached to the handrail on the boardwalk said, “Swamp’s Elusive Ghost.” On the sign, there’s a photo with a red arrow pointing to our objective.
This was no regular ghost orchid. This was the one and only Super Ghost Orchid.
It’s growing 50 feet in the air – higher than any other known ghost orchid. Its roots cling to the side of a 500-year-old bald cypress. But what makes it “super” is its habit of putting out multiple blooms over the course of several months.
There’s no telling how long it’s been growing there – decades, most likely. Nobody noticed it until 2007, when a birdwatcher who was searching for owls happened to spot this remarkable plant growing 100 feet off the boardwalk. Before that, it had been hidden by a tree branch that was knocked to the ground by Hurricane Wilma.
How prolific is this Super Ghost? Most ghost orchids put out a single bloom in June or July and that’s it. But in 2014, sanctuary records show that the Super Ghost produced more than 40 flowers throughout the year. In 2015, the first bloom appeared in January. Two years later, it bloomed in November and December. Last year it kept putting out blooms or 85 consecutive days, a stretch that began on July 8 and ended at last on September.
This year the blooms began popping out in June. When we saw it in mid-August, it had five flowers bobbing in the breeze.
They were just barely visible to the naked eye. Sure enough, those $3 binoculars came in handy for being able to view the blooms in greater detail. We took turns looking at it, and shot a blurry cell phone photo through the binoculars.
Just as we were saying we should head back, a very loud “CRACK!” resounded through the sky above us, an echo rolling behind it. The threat of being hit by lightning sent us scurrying back the way we came, at top speed.
IF YOU GO
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is located at 375 Sanctuary Road W in Naples, about 25 minutes off Interstate 75. Admission is $14 for adults, $6 for college students with a photo ID, $10 for National Audubon Society members with membership card and $4 for children 6-18. 6 are free). No pets, only service animals allowed. The boardwalk is open daily from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. with the last admission to the boardwalk at 4:30 p.m. Wear long sleeves and long pants and bug spray to ward off biting insects. Before you go, check for the latest ghost orchid information at corkscrew.audubon.org.