Post Irma Rare Plant Rescue

In the aftermath of a hurricane, we typically think of flooding, destruction, and humanitarian disasters. Most of us don’t think about rare plants. . . most of us, that is. After Hurricane Irma, Highlands Hammock State Park invited Bok Tower Gardens to rescue epiphytic ferns and orchids from fallen trees in the park before cleanup crews incinerated the debris.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic plants that grow entirely, roots and all, on the branches of trees and shrubs. The most familiar epiphytes in central Florida include the bromeliads Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata), and the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). Most familiar orchids, including several of the native ones, are also epiphytes. On Sept. 17, David Price, Patrick Lynch, and Whitney Costner rescued plants, and on Sept. 20, Patrick Lynch and Phil Gonsiska returned to attempt to access areas that had not been searched during the earlier trip. We collected several species of ferns—strap ferns (Campyloneurum phyllitidis), resurrection ferns (Pleopeltis polypodioides), and shoestring ferns (Vittaria lineata)—as well as butterfly orchids (Encyclia tampensis) and greenfly orchids (Epidendrum magnoliae).

A closeup of a rescued greenfly orchid in our greenhouse. Two subspecies of greenfly orchid grow in Florida, one of which is reported to grow in the wild as far north as North Carolina, making it the northernmost epiphytic orchid in the New World. Because of the size and color of the flowers, the greenfly orchid is less noticeable than the larger, more common butterfly orchid, but when examined up close, it is no less beautiful!