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Ghost Hunters Part I

July 6, 2010

The exact location of my whereabouts on this Sunday morning shall remain a mystery. A map to Shangri-la would only entice a stampede of curious explorers, whom however well-intentioned could cause the downfall of this subtropical Floridian utopia.

Our quest is the rare and endangered Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), an epiphytic bloom that resides in the most far-flung swamps and sloughs of South Florida. The site could be considered paradise to few. To find our quarry required driving the dust-choked back roads of the 750,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve to a “trailhead”. From here we would bushwhack through sharp-toothed sawgrass and slosh in muddy, ankle-deep, sun-boiled water before we reached the blissful partial shade of the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) forest.

Under the canopy of the cypress, the temperatures cooled mildly, while the humidity seemingly required the use of gills. Wasps clung to nests, carefully tucked under the fronds of the cabbage palm. Knock a frond and we’d have to move quickly through an invisible trail where thorny green-briar vines, camouflaged and draped from tree to tree threatened to decapitate the hurried, careless hiker.

As we waded further through the cypress, the water became deeper and darker, the trees taller. With water now up to our hips, we sloshed past the last of the cypress and into our final obstacle of our swamp gauntlet, the Pop Ash slough. The suffocating cypress now behind us, we pushed into the slough, filled with Pop Ash (Fraxinus caroliniana) and Pond Apple (Annona glabra) trees. Their roots are inundated and their trunks emerging from cool, black water that surrounded us in every direction. The well-shaded canopy permits the occasional beam of sun to poke through and illuminate the tannin-stained leaves that rest on the bottom of a nearly imperceptible flow of water.

Here is where our search begins. There is hardly an inch of tree trunk that is not covered by lichens, Resurrection Ferns (Pleopeltis polypodioides) or Clam Orchids. With space at a premium in this small nook of the Everglades, plants grow where they can and competition is fierce. There are an estimated 1200+ Ghosts spread out in various locations in South Florida. The question is “are there Ghost Orchids here?”

The adventure continues next week.

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