The Million Orchid Project Overview

Restoring South Florida’s Orchids

A five-year orchid reintroduction project for South Florida

 

Overview

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is proposing to propagate millions of native orchids for reintroduction into South Florida’s urban landscapes. The new Micropropagation Laboratory at Fairchild will generate a limitless supply of young native orchid plants. Local school landscapes and urban tree plantings will be the primary recipients of Fairchild’s reintroduction initiatives. Our goal is to have the first generation of reestablished orchids blooming throughout South Florida within five years. Throughout the project Fairchild scientists will teach visitors, students, and our local community about the complexity and fragility of natural South Florida environments and the importance of habitat restoration.

Introduction

More than a century ago, South Florida was a natural orchid paradise. Masses of orchids blanketed every branch of every oak and mahogany tree in the seaside hardwood hammocks of Biscayne Bay. Early South Florida settlers marveled at the intense beauty and fragrance during Miami’s springtime orchid flowering season.

In the late 1800s, as the Florida East Coast Railroad extended southward, orchids were among the first natural resources to be exploited. Millions of flowering orchids were ripped from the trees and packed into railroad cars, destined to be sold as disposable potted plants in northern flower shops. Orchid populations dwindled rapidly to catastrophically low levels. Urban development and agriculture further eliminated nearly all remaining orchid habitat.

orchid collectors
Early 20th century orchid collectors in
South Florida.

Today native orchids exist in such small numbers that they have no hope of recovering on their own, despite the fact that oaks and mahoganies have been gradually making a comeback as street and landscape trees throughout South Florida.

Some orchid species persist at very low levels in the region, including two that still occur naturally at Fairchild. These are the Florida butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis) and cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum), both flowering regularly in the garden. Each bloom may yield more than a million seeds, but the odds are that none of the tiny, dustlike seeds will ever grow into a new plant. Orchid seeds are dispersed by the wind, and their success depends on landing in just the right location with the right growing conditions. To grow successfully they need a patch of tree bark with the proper species of symbiotic, microscopic fungus, an exceedingly rare event.

Established micropropagation laboratory techniques are used to create suitable growing conditions in the test tube, allowing each seed capsule to yield thousands of seedlings. A handful of Florida orchid species are now being propagated using these techniques for reintroduction into federal and state-managed natural areas.

Fairchild's aim however is to reintroduce native orchids to Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods—complementing the existing orchid reintroduction projects aimed at natural areas—focusing our efforts on South Florida’s urban environments. Our region has countless suitable landscape trees for orchid reestablishment in schoolyards, roadways, and other public spaces. We propose to use published micropropagation techniques to generate millions of orchid seedlings, and work with community partners to plant them throughout South Florida. Within five years we expect to have flowering orchids in a wide variety of local urban settings, especially in the places where people work, learn, and commute.

A successful model of urban orchid reintroduction already exists at the Singapore Botanic Garden (SBG). Over the past 30 years, scientists at SBG have propagated and replanted the native orchids of Singapore on street trees throughout the city. They have successfully reintroduced several orchid species to levels that allow them to reproduce naturally, even in the most densely developed urban settings.

Methods

Fairchild proposes to use standard micropropagation techniques to grow seedlings from native orchid species. Seeds will be extracted from seed capsules under sterile techniques, planted in growth medium, and successively transplanted until the seedlings are large enough to grow outdoors. We will work with community partners to find suitable locations, plant the seedlings, and follow their progress.

orchid seed medium
Micropropagation Lab volunteer Susie Lau
prepares sterile growing medium to receive orchid seeds.

Initial target species will be the Florida butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis) and cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum), which can both be collected at Fairchild. Other species for propagation and reestablishment include Prosthechea boothiana (dollar orchid) and Prosthechea cochleata (cockleshell orchid), which persist in some natural areas of Miami-Dade. For each species, the reestablishment process will occur over a five-year timetable:

Year 1— Orchid seed capsules are harvested when ripe, usually in the autumn, winter, or early spring. Seeds are planted in sterile medium in the laboratory and monitored for germination. After approximately three months the orchid seedlings are ready to be transplanted into new containers as they develop leaves and roots.

Year 2— After the first year of growth seedlings are transplanted to individual containers. When they are 18 months old they are ready to be removed from sterile containers and grown under standard nursery conditions.

Year 3— At 24 months of age the orchid seedlings are ready to be attached to tree branches. This is done in the springtime to allow proper root development during the South Florida rainy season. For the first year outdoors, watering and fertilizing may be necessary in some locations.

Years 4-5— Graduate students conduct experiments on the growth of reestablished orchids in a variety of urban settings. Associations with other elements of the ecosystem, including pollinators, will be studied. Orchids will begin flowering and producing seeds when they are four or five years old.

orchid seedlings
Micropropagation Lab volunteer Julie Berlin deftly
transfers orchid seedlings to a roomier growing flask.

Staff and Equipment

Micropropagation Technician or Postdoctoral Researcher—A full-time technician or postdoctoral researcher with expertise in plant micropropagation. The technician/postdoc will supervise graduate students and volunteers in the lab, obtain orchid seeds from wild plants at Fairchild or local natural areas, and coordinate reintroduction with municipal governments and area schools. He or she will also teach Fairchild visitors, students, and our local community about native orchids and the importance of habitat restoration.

Orchid Reintroduction Graduate Fellowship—We propose to host up to four Ph.D. students from local universities in the micropropagation lab. Students will be enrolled in biology or environmental studies degree programs and will conduct independent research on orchid reintroduction in South Florida's urban environments.  Each student will focus on a single orchid species for the duration of his or her five-year graduate program. Graduate students will participate in the K-12 Fairchild Challenge program, teaching students at all levels about our work.

Equipment, Chemicals and Supplies— A constant supply of sterile materials and chemicals is needed for all stages of seed preparation and germination, and for the care, transplantation, and acclimatization of seedlings.

tampensis and punctatum
Left: Florida butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis) blooms on an oak tree in South Florida. Right: Flowers of the
cowhorn orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum) appear in spring.