The Coastal Star

Secret Garden: Project aims to restore endangered orchids to native habitats

ABOVE: GPS coordinates are recorded so that the orchids can be monitored. BELOW: Carmen Rodriguez nestles a Dancing Lady orchid seedling into the undergrowth of the Yamato Scrub Natural Area. Photos by Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

As we walk through the Yamato Scrub Natural Area in Boca Raton, we look for places to plant orchids. Now don’t picture us out here with velvety purple phalaenopsis or peachy pink vandas that you might buy at a nursery or big box store.
    We are here to plant Dancing Ladies, an endangered native orchid. And flowers aside, the ones we have are a mere 2 years old, measuring only about 2 inches in length from root tip to the top of their greenery. They’ve been propagated from seed in a laboratory at Florida Atlantic University’s Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach. And now they are being planted in the wild.
    “We work hard to do it right,” said Carmen Rodriguez, education and training programs coordinator for the center. “These are rare plants and we want them to be successful.”
    She and her co-worker, technician David Taylor, along with scientists at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, are participating in the Million Orchid Project. It’s an attempt to grow and reintroduce endangered to critically endangered native orchids into their native habitats.
    In the past, native orchids that are part of the project, including the butterfly, night-blooming and dollar orchids, were common all over South Florida. They were so prolific, you’d find them in just about every tree.  But in the late 1800s, the Florida East Coast Railway brought tourists who bought specimens to take home as houseplants and poachers who picked them out of trees to ship to florists up North.
    The devastation of the native population was so great that today only a few species survive in very limited areas of the state. And given development and pollution, even their survival is not assured.
    That’s why Rodriguez and Taylor are busy in the laboratory propagating and growing over 60,000 orchid plants from eight species in sterile flasks set under grow-lights. After two years in the lab, the orchids will be ready for “out-planting” in the wild, where their growth and development will be watched and noted for years to come.
    The Dancing Lady orchids we are planting today currently survive in the wild in only two areas of Jupiter. But Rodriguez and Taylor hope the Boca Raton scrub will be a suitable habitat in which their population can expand.
    Finding the proper habitat is not easy, but it’s important. Native orchids have specific needs for growth, with species native to Palm Beach County being genetically different from those in Miami-Dade and vice versa.
    When Taylor sees a saw palmetto, a possible host plant for the Dancing Lady orchid, he reaches to the base of the tree. Here he tucks the roots of a tiny seedling into the pine needles that cover the floor of this scrubland. He then marks the spot with a numbered metal tag. “We hope that the pine needles will help lock in moisture for the dry season and that they’ll do OK here,” he said.
    Meanwhile, Rodriguez records the plant’s GPS coordinates so they can find it again. She also notes who did the planting, the date and the host plant. It takes us about three hours to complete today’s out-planting of 65 Dancing Lady orchids.
    And as we drive away, I wonder how those tiny wisps propagated from seeds the size of talcum powder will stand up to Mother Nature in the form of hungry gopher tortoises that enjoy their tender shoots, not to mention the vagaries of weather and visitors.
    But their survival is important because native orchids thrive only where the water is fresh and the air clean. So by surviving, they let us know our habitat is healthy. “That makes them a good indicator species for our planet,” said Rodriguez.
    If you would like to volunteer to work on the Million Orchid Project, contact Rodriguez at
    To show your support and help fund the Million Orchid Project, you can participate in the Wild Orchid 5K-Plus fun runs for kids beginning at 8 a.m. on Feb. 3 at FAU Pine Jog Environmental Education Center. Entry is $25 ($35 after Jan. 26). Visit
    Please note: It is illegal to harvest endangered native orchids from public land, according to Lee Lietzke, senior environmental analyst for the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management. “Take photos; leave only footprints,” he said.

Once upon a time Dancing Lady blooms dotted Florida’s landscape.

If You Go
The Million Orchid Project laboratory is open only to volunteers. The public can visit the nature area adjacent to the center, 6301 Summit Blvd., West Palm Beach (; 686-6600). Here, native butterfly orchids are found in the wild, and more have been planted from the lab. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Or visit the Yamato Scrub Natural Area, 701 Clint Moore Road, Boca Raton (; 233-2400), where Dancing Lady orchids have been planted in the wild. The scrub is open sunrise to sunset.

Gardening Tip   

If you plant more common species of exotic orchids bought at garden stores, you need to find a place for them in your home or yard that mimics their natural habitat. Many of the exotics were originally from trees in rainforests.
For best results, keep them in low light and attach the orchids to trees or plant them in special bark preparations. And instead of saturating them, spritz them with water two or three times a week aiming for the roots, not the foliage.
— David Taylor and Carmen Rodriguez

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at

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