Orchid-Hunting in Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand

The elusive ghost orchid. Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Waist-deep in Fakahatchee Strand, wild orchids were our “prey.” The rat snake coiled on a stump, the brilliantly hued bromeliads, and the riotous greenery were mere bonuses.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is the wild orchid capital of the U.S. and the home of the ghost orchid, star of page and screen. The beautiful, fragile ghost orchid inspired the book Orchid Thief, which in turn was the basis for the Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage movie Adaptation. The orchid’s ensuing fame shone the spotlight on slogging through the freshwater ravines of the Fakahatchee Strand in search of the elusive flowers.

It also inspired more thievery — the very subject of the book so much —  so that staff eventually had to discontinue the summer seek-and-find missions. Fakahatchee Strand staff and volunteers do, however, lead swamp walks November through April, when other of the preserve’s 47 species of wild orchids, including one first discovered there, bloom. And that is why I was braving alligators and snakes to slip into the backdoor of the Florida Everglades.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You really want to “get into” your Everglades nature experience.
  • There are much more than orchids to seek and find here.
  • Awesome for nature-lovers and adventure-seekers.

Wild Orchid Capital USA

Wet and slimy hikes are the new ‘walk in the park’ for nature-lovers. Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

“I call it Shangri-La — this is a paradise for me and many other people that want to come out and explore,” said Park Biologist Mike Owen. “There’s just an allure coming out here.

“Orchids are a big piece of that but we also have a so many tropical epiphytes that are endangered like ferns and bromeliads and peperomias. We’re a thin sliver of the Amazon, the northernmost extension of the American tropics. So when we go out exploring these sloughs in Fakahatchee, we go out for the day. We bring lunch and water and just kind of split up, and you never know what you’re going to find.”

Besides the absolute congestion of verdant subtropical plant life and cypress forest, swamp walkers also see and hear birds such as osprey, wood storks, ibises, and hawks. If they’re lucky, they may see river otters and the rare indigo snake. Alligator encounters are actually uncommon to nonexistent as the noise made by sloshing groups tends to scare them off.

The fact that we saw a baby cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin) snake  on the gravel road before we even stepped into the swamp was slightly unnerving. I made sure to follow behind Mike in case anything else threatening should appear, but the most trouble turned out to be the fallen vegetation that wanted to trip our feet and grab our ankles in the murky water.

Swamp Shuffle

As we inched our way through, shuffling our feet, Mike pointed out about a dozen different varieties of subtle orchid beauties I would surely have missed on my own. Their flowers ranged from thumb-sized paper white to tiny leaf green cluster.

These are not the corsage orchids that are farmed in Hawaii. Yet they are still fascinating as a barometer of health and beauty in this swampy world at first glance so uninviting. In the end, the muck sucks you in.

Orchid Thief  author Susan Orlean admits she became as obsessed with the ghost orchid and other wild orchids as she did with John Laroche, whose arrest for plundering Fakahatchee Strand she wrapped her book around.

For most, the orchid obsession grows from the plants’ delicate, sensual nature. Back in the 1920s, their exotic novelty nearly depleted wild orchid populations in the Everglades as locals harvested them by the wagonload. At Fakahatchee Strand, intrepid waders can still enjoy their now closely guarded beauty — if they don’t mind the muck and a little gator angst.

Practicalities

Fakahatchee leads swamp walks the first, second, and third Saturday November throgh April, and for groups by special arrangement. Wear long pants and solid, closed-toe shoes. Carry a big stick (which guides provide).

To make reservations, visit Friends of Fakahatchee. For park information: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

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