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Get knee-deep in Florida — for orchids

We're barely out of our cars before the chorus starts: "I just want to see a ghost orchid!" The ghost orchid is among the world's rarest flowers, the star of the popular book "The Orchid Thief" and the movie "Adaptation" and is the biggest lure to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in southwest Florida.
Kevin Fischer
Kevin Fischer and his tour group walked for three plus hours in the knee deep water searching for orchids and other endangered plants during a swamp walk in the Fakahatchee Strand, portion of the Florida Everglades.J. Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

We're barely out of our cars before the chorus starts: "I just want to see a ghost orchid!"

The ghost orchid is among the world's rarest flowers, the star of the popular book "The Orchid Thief" and the movie "Adaptation" and is the biggest lure to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in southwest Florida.

The preserve has been the scene of numerous orchid thefts, but park biologist Mike Owen promises to lead our group of orchid enthusiasts within arm's reach of the delicate plants during a four-hour swamp walk.

Orchids are available even in grocery stores now, but more species of orchids and bromeliads grow wild here than anywhere else in the country. Some species have never made the transition from swamp muck to windowsill pot.

There are 315 ghost orchids scattered across the Fakahatchee's 85,000 acres, according to Owen. The odds of spotting one aren't good. They don't bloom until summer, and without their white flowers they're likely to blend into the swamp's lush shades of green and brown.

Nevertheless, we line up behind Owen and set off down a dirt trail. The park offers these Saturday tours during Florida's November to April dry season, when the orchids are easier to find.

The park lies about 70 miles west of Miami, across the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and a five-mile stretch of road marked with "panther crossing" signs and a roadside stand called the "Skunk Ape Research Headquarters," the local equivalent of Big Foot hunters. The straight shot across the Tamiami Trail only seems flat; the road is gradually sloping toward sea level.

The Fakahatchee is part of the Everglades ecosystem that streams down from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys. It's the largest strand swamp in the world: a 19-mile long channel cut 2- to 3-feet deep into a limestone bed over more than 5,000 years.

Low streams called sloughs flow throughout the strand, and Owen is leading us into one recently filled with rainwater.

He raps on two culverts that serve as steps down from the trail. He says he's trying to scare out any alligators or snakes that might be hiding inside. It's not entirely clear if he's trying to scare us — we just did see a 4-foot gator sunning in a nearby ditch.

Nothing slithers out, though, so we wade into the cool water. We're protected from the sun by the canopy of tree growth above us.

A third of the group, six retirees from Ohio, abandons the tour at the water's edge. One slips while entering the shin-deep water and lands badly on his shoulder. Another park staffer walks them back to their minivan while Owen takes stock of the bromeliads around us.

** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ** An orchid glistens in the sunlight in the Fakahatchee Strand portion of the Florida Everglades, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2008 during a swamp walk tour of the wetlands by a group of people searching for orchids and other endangered plants. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)J. Pat Carter / AP

He tallies the various plant and animal species we encounter during the walk, penciling the names into a yellow, waterproof notebook. His notes document the locations and conditions of endangered plants; some are fighting off exotic weevils, others are growing where previous orchids were stolen. If we come across a ghost orchid, it will get a detailed entry — how many roots it has, how high off the ground it is and other remarks on its health.

The walk doesn't get more difficult after the retirees leave, but it doesn't get any easier, either. We were offered walking sticks for balance, and Owen keeps the pace slow as we trudge through the water, trying to feel out obstacles with our feet.

Owen doesn't dwell on what might be in the water, but clinging to a log is a waterbug the length and width of two fingers. It makes me wonder.

We spot our first orchid just a few minutes after losing the retirees. The flat green roots of a ribbon orchid wind around a tree limb above our heads.

Soon a palmful of petals sprouting off a tree branch catch the eye of one woman. "It's got a beautiful yellow blossom!" she says.

She's found a blooming orchid that Owen calls the "roller coaster orchid."

"It's really called the dingy" — he exaggerates spitting into the water — "flowered star orchid," he says. "Don't call our flowers dingy!"

He freely renames the plants we see if he doesn't like their common names. A university botanist once told him that common plant names are worthless, so Owen sees no reason to keep calling an orchid dingy if it isn't. He calls the dingy-flowered star orchid a roller coaster orchid because its curled leaves remind him of an amusement park ride.

He's trusting our group not to come back and swipe the plants we see. Past visitors have not been so courteous. Owen temporarily stopped taking tours into this particular slough after several orchids went missing.

He's overjoyed to find tiny helmet and night-scented orchids growing in a blank patch in the moss on a tree — the scar of an orchid theft.

Their remote habitat and fear of the unknown protect the orchids that remain from all but the most determined thieves, Owen says.

"People are afraid of swamps. People are afraid of venomous snakes, alligators and water," he says. "They also don't like heat, humidity and mosquitoes. That's what keeps them from taking more."

After more than three hours in the water, we've seen 10 different orchid species on this walk — but not the ghost orchid. The closer we get back to the trail, the more wistfully we peer at the trees around us.

Owen's hands suddenly go up in victory. A thin green ribbon with white dash lines appears to be tied around the rough bark of a pond apple tree.

It's a young ghost orchid.

We splash through knee-deep water for a look, no longer worried about hazards hidden by the murky, muddy rainwater. We've forgotten that the Ohio retiree tripped on a submerged root and dislocated his shoulder. All eyes are on this rarity.

Seeing a live ghost orchid isn't an experience that can be simulated in plastic, tourist Florida. Orchid nurseries famous in the state for creating new hybrid species from two different orchid plants can't grow these delicate plants that seem to bloom in mid-air. Ghost orchids restrict themselves to very specific growing conditions, pollinated by just one species of moth. If we don't see it now, we might never get another chance.

Owen is encouraged to find three active growing tips — the shiny ends of the ribbon — and deems the plant generally healthy. He's been watching it since 2003, and guesses it could be another decade before it blooms.

It's almost sure to be there when the Ohio retirees decide to try the swamp walk again — if no one steals it.