NAPLES — It was about lunch time, and the three men had been traipsing through the swamp at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park for a couple hours.
They did not know they were about to step into the botanical history books with the rediscovery of a lost orchid species.
But there it was last Saturday, Cyclopogon elatus, a flowering spike shooting up from a rotting log.
“It’s a pretty big find,” Fakahatchee Strand park biologist Mike Owen said Tuesday afternoon.
Not since 1980 in Miami-Dade County — and, before that, 1961 in Miami-Dade and 1881 in Hernando County — had anyone recorded seeing the species, according to the orchid lover’s bible, “The Native Orchids of Florida.”
“It’s really only kind of orchid nerds who are going to appreciate this, but it’s kind of cool,” Miami environmental scientist Chris Little said Tuesday.
He was the first to spy the orchid, just minutes after he split from his two hiking companions to better cover a particularly promising-looking slough in the middle of the preserve.
The trio were participating in the annual spring survey of leafy treasures at the preserve, widely regarded as the Orchid Capital of the United States, about 75,000 acres south of Interstate 75 and east of State Road 29.
At first, though, all Little knew was that he hadn’t seen an orchid like it before.
He called over Keith Bradley, a Homestead botanist, and University of Miami deputy policy chief Russ Clusman for a closer look.
“Russ and Keith thought a moment and Russ, with much excitement, blurted Cyclopogon elatus!!!” Little wrote on the photo-sharing site Flickr.
Other surveyors, hearing the celebration that erupted in the middle of the swamp, followed their ears to find out what all the commotion was about, Owen said.
“We knew they found something good because they kept calling,” he said.
Good news travels fast in the orchid community and, by Tuesday afternoon, orchid expert Paul Martin Brown already was trying to arrange a visit see Cyclopogon elatus for himself.
“It’s a big deal,” he said from Ocala, where he is a research associate with the University of Florida Herbarium.
The Fakahatchee find is a double win: it’s a whole new location for the orchid, and there’s lot of them there, Brown said.
By the end of the day, Little and his fellow surveyors had found 92 of the orchids growing within a mile or so.
In 1961, orchid hunters John Beckner and Carlyle Luer found only three of the plants growing in a hardwood hammock in Miami-Dade.
Luer and Beckner feared the hammock was slated for development as a subdivision and so took the orchids home to flower for identification, Luer wrote.
“It’s most encouraging to encounter such a Florida rarity,” Luer wrote in “The Native Orchids of Florida” in 1972.
“Since it has now been found by chance in two widely separated localities, it most probably lurks elsewhere,” he wrote.
Could it have been growing undetected in the Fakahatchee all this time? Maybe, Owen said.
At 19 miles long and five miles wide, the Fakahatchee is a big target for orchid seeds blown by hurricanes or dropped by birds.
Previous surveyors easily could have missed the little plant if it wasn’t blooming, he said.
The Fakahatchee’s central slough, where the orchids were found, is not an easy place to get to in the first place.
Owen plans to send one of the specimens to the University of South Florida, where it will be preserved for future research.
The rediscovery of Cyclopogon elatus brings to 46 the number of native orchid species found growing at Fakahatchee Strand.
Little plans to go back, maybe this weekend, to look for No. 47, he said.
“There’s a few more we’re looking for,” he said.
Submitted by Chris Little
On Saturday March 14, 2009 I was hiking with Keith Bradley and Russ Clussman as part of the annual central slough survey in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park to search for rare flora.
After several hours of slogging through the swamp we came upon a particularly nice slough. We decided to split up to cover the slough better.
After only a minute I found an orchid which I had never seen before. I called Keith over and Russ soon followed. We all discussed the orchid and Russ exclaimed that he believed it was Cyclopogon elatus, a very rare orchid, which has not been seen in Florida since 1962. We all celebrated our find and spend the next few hours searching the area where almost a hundred of the plants were found.
Mike Owen, the park biologist, soon arrived on the scene where he celebrated the find with us. The orchid has never been observed in the Fakahatchee and was last seen in Miami-Dade county in 1962.
Keith and I later found a few more plants about a mile away from the original location later in the day. What an amazing feeling to discover such a rare plant.