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7 Facts About The Rare Ghost Orchid

Updated: Feb 19

Ghost Orchid

Living up to it's name in less fortunate ways due to being an endangered species, the Ghost Orchid population is sparsely scattered in Cuba, flooded forests of Florida and the Bahamas. Despite being native to remote swamp land and inhabiting small wooded islands, the Ghost Orchid still faces an array of threats from climate change, human poaching, pollinator and habitat loss which has unfortunately experienced steady decline over the years. This unique floral phantom is aptly named for multiple reasons as its white flowers have a vaguely spectral appearance which then seem to hover in the forest due to an illusion created by the leafless plant. Here to honour its haunting mystique, this article delves into the world of the Ghost Orchid.

1. Once a year bloom- or not at all

Blooming between June-August just once per year for a couple of weeks this orchid can sometimes also take the year off as only around 10% of Ghost Orchids may bloom in any given year, making them an unreliable bloomer. To add insult to injury, as few as 10% of these may only be pollinated so not many people get the chance to witness these beauties.

2. Scales instead of leaves

Known as a "leafless" orchid as the leaves have been reduced to scales with more mature plants seeming to lack foliage, the Ghost orchid also appears to have a reduced stem, often difficult to see if you manage to find one in the wild. Due to its lack of foliage, these orchids appear to be suspended in air as they attach themselves to tree trunks via a few roots.

3. Mostly made of roots

Consisting mostly of roots instead of leaves and a stem, the Ghost orchid typically grows on tree bark without any soil requirement due to it being an epiphyte. Tending to grow on the main trunk or large boughs of a living tree several feet from the ground, epiphytes don't cause any trouble as they do not seek nutrients from their hosts.

4. The roots act like leaves

While the Ghost Orchid may not have leaves to speak of, photosynthesis still occurs in the roots are they contain chlorophyll, rendering leaves unnecessary. Not only do the roots anchor the orchid to the tree, they are the main source of taking in water and nutrients. The roots also feature pneumatodes which are small white marks which perform the gas exchange needed for respiration and photosynthesis. When the orchid isn't in bloom, the mass of roots have been compared to unremarkable bits of green linguine as stated by National Geographic's Douglas Main.

5. Floating forest flowers

As discussed in the intro, the bark of the trees where the orchids grow blends in with the Ghost Orchids greenish roots, allowing them to be well camouflaged when not in bloom season high up in the canopies. During the short period when in bloom, a thin spike extending outward from the roots can be seen which acts as a suspender, allowing the flower to dangle as if its floating freely in the air which makes this orchid a sight to behold. The lower petal known as the labellum, has two long and lateral tendrils which twist slightly downward, resembling the hind legs of a jumping frog.

6. Fruity scent in the morning time

Scientists have discovered that the most intense fragrance emitted is in the early morning, with the fruity scent resembling that of an apple. Their sweet nighttime scent attracts giant sphinx moths that pollinate the plants with their proboscis –long enough to reach pollen hidden deep within the flower of the ghost orchid.

7. The specialist pollinator

For ghost orchids, the long-tongued pollinator known as the giant sphinx moth which is native to South and Central America but pretty rare in the continent of North America is widely described as the sole pollinator of ghost orchids, thanks to its long proboscis and a lack of evidence for any other pollinators. Its larvae feed on the pond apple tree, which is also an important host for ghost orchids.

The pollen of the ghost orchid is deep within its flowers so can only be pollinated by an insect with a long enough proboscis to reach all the way down inside. Darwin actually identified the need for this particular pollinator to have an unusually lengthy tongue in order to successfully pollinate such a long flower.

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