A five year orchid reintroduction program for South Florida

Fairchild is propagating 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, hospitals and urban tree plantings are currently 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.

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 Florida orchid collectors

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.

orchid seed medium
Fairchild volunteer at work in the Micropropagation Lab.

View a native orchid care sheet here.

To learn more about The Million Orchid Project, please contact Dr. Jason Downing at jdowning@fairchildgarden.org or 305.667.1651, ext. 3354.