Endangered Native Orchid Collection at the Estates
April 19, 2022
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
The Florida Everglades is home to more native orchids than anywhere else in the continental United States. Of the original 39 species, four are now extinct and the rest are endangered. Plants, however, do not know state, national or even international borders, so their natural range may extend beyond Florida and in most cases, these orchids are still listed as secure across this range. However, we do not know this for sure, and it is important for us to recognize that due to over collecting, many of the remaining native orchids are indeed on the Threatened or Endangered List in their native Florida habitats. As Florida grew in the 1800s and the rail lines were extended south, orchids were the first natural resource found in Florida to be exploited. Today, collecting wild orchids is strictly prohibited in Florida.
Edison and Ford Winter Estates is proud to announce that they are partnering with the University of Florida/ IFAS Immokalee Station, Southwest Florida Research & Education Center or IFAS/SWFREC for short, to introduce some of these threatened or endangered orchids to our property. It is our hope that through this partnership in conservation, some of the most beautiful plants on the planet will be able to happily grow here for future generations of our community to enjoy.
To date, we have received four such orchids, each with a challenging tale of pollination and habitat requirements. As all of these orchids are young, we have had to use the photographs of previously grown specimens. In this issue, we are giving credit to these photographers for their work.
The first specimen, Vanilla dilloniana, commonly known as the leafless vanilla orchid, is one of four Florida native vanilla orchids. Almost everyone is familiar with the flavor vanilla, which is extracted from the bean of pollinated Vanilla panifolia orchid flowers – this is known as commercial vanilla, the only edible orchid. As the most important flavoring, economically speaking, in the world, and the second most expensive spice behind saffron, today the bulk of production comes from Mexico and Madagascar. Since Florida can offer a similar habitat to these two countries, why isn’t Florida farming vanilla? The brief answer is V. panifolia must be pollinated by a bee, or by hand.
Vanilla panifolia begins life as a terrestrial orchid that attaches to a tree and wants to zig-zag to great heights, where humans cannot reach. To manually pollinate these flowers, the height must be limited and the obvious labor costs to hand pollinate each vanilla flower makes this technique cost prohibitive here in Florida. Native to Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba and the Yucatan, Vanilla panifolia was probably brought to Florida by Native Americans in pre-Columbia times. Botanists at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Florida are currently studying the ability to cross the commercial vanilla orchid plant with a Florida native species which by their existence have proven their ability to endure the wide swings of South Florida’s climate.
In the wilds of the Yucatan, Vanilla panifolia is pollinated by the Melipona Bee, also known as the Stingless Bee. As their habitats and populations are threatened by many factors, it stands to reason that the availability of wild V. panifolia is also compromised. Unless … researchers are able to hybridize the V. panifolia with a native Florida vanilla, which is pollinated by the beautiful Euglossine bees, orchid bees, or hover bees as they are also known. These long-distance pollinators could assist botanists in developing a commercial vanilla and thus a valuable agricultural product for our state.
Sadly, it is generally the economics of sustainability or future agricultural value that drives the resources toward the much-needed research of these dedicated botanists, and “bee” that as it may, it is exciting to think that someday our newly acquired native Vanilla dilloniana may be part of a very important breakthrough in the second-most valuable spice in the world.
“Grow Fort Myers” will be held here at the Estates on Saturday, April 9 and we are excited to announce that the day’s programming will begin with a presentation of orchids by the renowned botanists and researchers from the University of Florida/IFAS. In addition to Vanilla dilloniana, Edison Ford will receive a Latin American Orchid, also called the Florida Dancing Lady (Oncidium ensatum). Known for its super long eight-foot floral inflorescence, this is the only Oncidium native to North America. It is endangered in our state of Florida, though secure in other areas of its indigenous zone, which includes the Bahamas and the Yucatan, as far as we know. Oncidium ensatum grows happily as either an epiphyte (in a tree) or as a terrestrial orchid (in the ground) in rich humus in dry hammocks. The yellow flowers with brown spots may appear any time throughout the year, but most predictably between May and August. This orchid is pollinated by the male oil collecting bees that mistake the large spray of flowers for a foreign bee swarm. The third endangered native to be offered will be the Spotted Mule Eared Orchid, native to Florida, the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America. The Trichocentrum undulatum is endangered in its Florida habitat, like the others, due to over collecting from the wild.
The wandering centris bee, endemic to southern-most Florida is responsible for pollinating the T. undulatum. It s almost as much fun to learn about the bee pollinators as it is these orchids and the wandering centris is no exception. It is commonly known as the Florida locust berry oil collecting bee and in its search for food, pollinates these flowers. T. undulatum is epiphytic like most orchids, but it may also be lithophytic, meaning to grow on rocks, particularly limestone. It sends out an arching spike of yellow flowers, up to three meters long.
Finally, Edison Ford will also be the new home of a Cow-horned Orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum), frequently called the cigar orchid. Its native range from Southern Florida extends to Argentina, though in Florida, it is listed as endangered. This one can grow to be an enormous orchid of many pseudobulbs with very sharp points, and it is generally dormant from November through March, so we are acquiring this one on the cusp of its spring growth period. A massive orchid, its popularity can be attributed to a spectacular inflorescence which may include up to 500 flowers! It has been intensely (and illegally) collected from the Everglades, so we are very pleased to be able to provide a new venue for the Bee Swarm Orchid. Like Vanilla dilloniana, the Cow-horned orchid is pollinated by a species of the Euglossine bee and, as with the Spotted Mule Eared Orchid, the Wandering Centris bee is also a contributing pollinator. This epiphytic orchid likes rough-barked trees, such as a buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) where it can bask in all-day sun, remain significantly dry in winter and receive daily moisture during its April through October growing season.
Like all natives, once they have successfully established in their new location and if they are provided with a congenial habitat, none of these native orchids will require any fertilizer or additional maintenance. In the meantime, the Horticulture Department, under the leadership of Debbie Hughes, will be baby-sitting these young plants to provide them with a suitable home and raise them to mature blooming specimens. We want future generations to be able to see these beautiful native orchids and not have to reminisce about them in a florilegium.