The rare Ghost Orchid might be known to the public through the book, “The Orchid Thief” and the 2002 Meryl Streep movie, “Adaptation.”
But plant enthusiasts and conservationists know about this leafless plant because it resembles a ghost when its white flower moves at night. Scientists estimate 2,000 Ghost Orchids live in Southwest Florida and about 300 in Cuba’s Guanahacabibes Peninsula.
The population of the native plant in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County is projected to decline by 20% in the next decade due to development, poaching and other factors. The plant is also difficult to propagate.
Through a long-term partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), Michael Kane, a University of Florida professor emeritus of environmental horticulture, has tried to preserve the Ghost Orchid population in Collier County.
Kane’s reputation as a world-renowned Ghost Orchid conservationist precedes him, which is why he was asked to show the plant and other Southwest Florida orchids at the invitation-only Chelsea Flower Show, May 22-27 in England.
Well over 150,000 people are expected to attend the show, so Kane and his colleagues are ready to answer questions such as what makes the Ghost Orchid unique and what are the causes for its population decline.
A milestone in Kane’s Ghost Orchid research came in 2016, when he worked with Hoang Nguyen and Jameson Coopman, who were then graduate students at the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).
Together, the researchers developed ways to culture the Ghost Orchid in the propagation lab at the UF campus in Gainesville. There, the scientists germinated seed — provided by USFWS — under sterile conditions on a gelled medium and transferred the plants into a greenhouse.
Then, they successfully reintroduced the Ghost Orchids into the wild of Southwest Florida – a huge achievement.
Both students went on to earn advanced degrees and publish their research.
“The show organizers recognize the scientific advancements we have made toward conserving many Southwest Florida native orchid species since 1997,” Kane said. “The display at the Chelsea Flower Show will feature native orchid conservation in Britain, Florida — including the Ghost Orchid — and the orchids of Cameroon.”
Kane credits efforts to preserve the plant to a team.
“The progress made in conserving the Ghost Orchid has resulted from talented UF/IFAS students, research collaborations with Lawrence Zettler (a biology professor at Illinois College), and a successful long-term USFWS research partnership,” said Kane, who retired from UF/IFAS in 2019. “Do Florida residents know about the Ghost Orchid being in danger? I try to bridge that knowledge gap.”
Kane embraces the opportunity to chat about the Ghost Orchid, scientifically known as Dendrophylax lindenii. In Florida, he tries to educate the public about the plant by speaking at orchid society meetings and teaching lectures whenever he can.
In honor of last year’s Platinum Jubilee, John Parke Wright IV of Naples – founder and chairman of the Orchid Conservation Chelsea and a member of the Lykes family of Tampa — worked with Zettler to present Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with a Florida-created orchid. Kane did not attend last year’s presentation, but Zettler said it was a “no-brainer” to invite Kane this year.
“He’s considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on the Ghost Orchid,” Zettler said. “He provides the missing ingredients on many long-unanswered questions from how to geminate the Ghost Orchid to grow it in the wild.”
An interesting footnote: This year’s show will have a Gator flavor to it.
Kane worked for decades at UF/IFAS. Zettler graduated from UF/IFAS CALS with a
bachelor’s in agriculture and is a member of the organizing committee for the flower show’s display. In addition, Wright earned his associate’s degree from UF.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.