Several conservation groups are working to secure the ghost orchid’s protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Advertisement
Ghost Orchid
Credit: Getty Images / Rhona Wise

The flower made famous by Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief is in danger. The rare ghost orchid, which can only be found in Cuba and in the flooded forests of South Florida, is facing extinction thanks to mounting threats from poaching, habitat degradation, and climate emergency.

Conservation groups The Institute for Regional ConservationThe Center for Biological Diversity, and The National Parks Conservation Agency submitted a joint petition requesting that the species be granted protected status and specific habitats be designated for the survival and recovery of the plant. They estimate that only roughly 1,500 ghost orchids are left in Florida today, representing a 30% to 50% decline. 

The flower's unusual appearance has captivated anthophiles and plant biologists for decades. The flower is unremarkable for most of the year, until it blooms in June and July. Then its stark white upside-down blooms turn heads, giving the appearance of hovering in air. The drama is intensified by two wispy tails that hang off the flower's petals. 

"The ghost orchid is the rare plant species that captures just as much attention as some charismatic megafauna in the state of Florida," Melissa Abdo, regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a release. "This mysterious, beautiful plant captivates Floridians, reminding them of our state's unique, wild heritage."

Ghost orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow on trees or other host plants rather than in the soil. As such, they draw their moisture from the air and require humid conditions for survival. In Florida, ghost orchids can be found in swampy areas of Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve Park, Audobon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and additional conservation and tribal areas in Collier, Hendry, and possibly Lee counties. 

WATCH: Florida Environmentalists Capture 17-Foot-Long Python: Biggest Ever Found in the Everglades

"The ghost orchid is an icon of beauty and nature's abundance," Institute for Regional Conservation Executive Director George Gann said in a release. "Its long demise in southern Florida and Cuba, in part due to its immense popularity, is a bellwether of things to come. We can do nothing and watch another species go extinct in the wild, or we can act now to protect and restore this flagship orchid and its wild habitats. The Florida we envision includes a restored Greater Everglades ecosystem with all of its biological diversity, including the ghost orchid."