The Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) was first discovered by Jean Jules Linden who observed this amazing orchid in the forests of Sague and Nimanima, St. Jaio de Cuba in September of 1844.  It wasn’t until 1880 until the Ghost Orchid was discovered in Florida by A.H. Curtiss in Collier County.  The range of the Ghost Orchid includes humid areas of Florida, Cuba, and Haiti, most likely existing on other nearby Caribbean islands in addition.

This plant has changed genus more than once.  Synonyms include Aeranthes lindenii, Agraecum lindenii, Polyrrhiza lindee and Polyradicion lindenii with Polyrrhiza and Polyadicion still being used by many sources.  Common names include the widely used Ghost Orchid, Palm Polly, and White Frog Orchid.

At first glance the Ghost Orchid is a spider web of green, grey, and white roots growing epiphytically on a host tree.  It is very easy to miss a Ghost Orchid due to its lack of leaves.  An epiphyte is an organism which grows attached to a living plant but is not parasitic.  After the discovery of the Ghost Orchid it was thought that the plant was parasitic but was found not to be true.

The Ghost Orchid begins its life as a dust like seed, being released from the seed pod of a mature Ghost Orchid.  The seed drifts slowly in the swamp air, and if it is lucky, lands upon a host tree.  Hosts trees for the Ghost Orchid include pop ash, pond apples, bald cypress, royal palm, arthritis vine, and more than likely other tropical swamp plants.  It is common to see Ghost Orchids growing near or in moss on the trunks of trees.  Perhaps the moss helps catch the fine seeds while floating through the air.  If the seeds land upon a suitable habitat it may germinate.  It is theorized that fungus is required for the mycorrhizal relationship in order to keep the Ghost Orchid alive, particularly when it is young. When the young seed germinates, it will grow only 1 or 2 roots, at which time vestigial leaves will form on some plants, and possibly not others.  These tiny vestigial leaves contain chlorophyll which converts sun light into energy to help the young plant grow.  As the Ghost Orchid grows, it will lose these leaves within the first year, at which the Ghost Orchid depends solely upon chlorophyll in its roots for energy from the sun.  The orchid’s roots, when moist, are bright green with dashed lines, like a multi-laned highway.  Ghost Orchids also receive nutrients by absorbing water that drains down the host plant.  After many years have passed, the Ghost Orchid will reach blooming size, and in late winter or spring a fortunate Ghost will begin to send out a flower spike.  Over the next several months the flower spike will grow to an average of about four inches.  Usually a single flower bud will form on the end of the spike and several weeks later the bud will begin the form a tail.  About two weeks after the tails begins to form, the Ghost Orchid unfurls to reveal its amazing and unmistakable shape like no other orchid.

The Ghost Orchid can stay open up to three weeks during April through August, at which time a very vigorous plant can have up to ten blooms, but more often than not, only one.  During this time the ghost orchid emits a mild, clean, soap like smell at dusk and night.  It was a strong theory that the Ghost Orchid was pollinated by the Giant Sphinx Moth (Cocytius antaeus).  This theory arose based on the Darwin theory of evolution, that adaptation happens depending upon the surrounding habitat. 

The Ghost Orchid has a five inch nectar spur containing sugar rich nectar.  The only local insect which has a long enough proboscis (tongue) to drink the nectar is the giant sphinx moth. Thus, the theory of the giant sphinx moth arose.  When Charles Darwin was alive, he hypothesized that there must exist an insect with a twelve inch proboscis since the Angraecum sesquipadale, a white Madagascar orchid, has a twelve inch nectar spur.  No such insect was known at the time and many thought Darwin was foolish to believe such an insect existed.  Many years passed and no insect was found.  After Darwin’s death the Morgan’s hawk moth (Xanthopan morgani) was found and remarkably it was equipped with a twelve inch proboscis.  I am sure that Charles Darwin was rolling in his grave with laughter!

On May 17, 2008, Misti and I were waiting patiently in the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve rolling tape in infrared in order to try to reveal the true pollinator of the Ghost Orchid.  We knew this would be a grueling challenge that could take many summer nights to capture.  This was our third night of video taping and we were hopeful.  At 8:25 pm we heard a low hum, similar to that of a vibrating cell phone, in the surrounding humid, night air.  We both watched the Ghost Orchid flower with anticipation.  Then, in the faintly lit swamp, we saw an object fly to the flower for a few brief seconds, and it was gone!  Had we really gotten this astonishing moment on tape?  I was too nervous to watch the video until we got home in fear that I might erase the precious few seconds of video.  I downloaded the footage to my computer and couldn’t believe it when I saw what we had!  The giant sphinx moth had now been confirmed as a pollinator of the Ghost Orchid!  It was an amazing feeling to know that we were the only people on the entire planet who had seen this event occur.  A few other brave souls are trying to repeat our video and I am sure that it is only a matter of time until they see and video this moment themselves.  Please see the pollination page for more information and video of the Giant Sphinx Moth.

Today around 1,200 Ghost Orchids are known to exist in Florida with more realistic population numbers in the thousands due to remote swamps which are rarely if ever visited by people.  Of these 1,200 Ghosts around 325 are in Fakahatchee Strand (“The Amazon of North America”), 800 in Big Cypress National Preserve and the remaining numbers in other scattered, protected areas of South Florida.

The Ghost Orchid is on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is listed an endangered on the Florida state list of threatened and endangered plants.  It is illegal to take them from the wild, and would only be taken by a greedy fool, because it would most likely die in captivity. Even so, many have been poached by obsessed orchid growers.

The Ghost Orchid contains three sepals and three petals.  The third petal is highly modified and gives the Ghost Orchid its unmistakable shape of a white frog with long legs, extended.  The uniquely shaped third petal (labellum) has two relatively long, twisted legs hanging vertically down.  Upon viewing pictures of Dendrophylax lindenii taken in other counties, I believe sub-species of this plant may exist based on the unique shape from different regions and the fact that cross pollination between these sub-specie populations would be close to impossible.

Ghost Orchid populations have dropped, possibly drastically, in the last century due to weather patterns, upsets of natural water flow in South Florida, legal collectors, poachers, and sloppy logging of unspoiled forests.

Technical info taken from The Native Orchids of Florida by Carlyle A. Luer

"50 cm long, radiating from a compact stem. INFLORESCENCE: 1 or 2 ascending, bracted penducles up to 25 cm long, bearing in succession 1-10 relatively large, white flowers. FLORAL BRACT: scarious, lanceolate, 4 x 3 mm. OVARY: pedicelle, selnder, 30 x 1.5 mm. SEPALS AND PETALS: lanceolate, acute, white suffused with green, free and widely spread; dorsal sepal 21 x 5.5 mm; lateral sepals oblique, 25 x 5.5 mm; petals 23 x 4.5 mm. LIP: 3-loped, the lateral lobes obtuse or acute, 18mm across when spread out, the middle lobe triangular, tapering into two elongated, linear, twisting lobes 65mm long, with an apicule between, the base concave and drawn out into a slender spur 12 cm long, the disc with a narrow, denticulate keel. COLUMNL short, thick, 2 x 5 mm, winged, the anther terminal, white, with a pair of orange pollinia. CAPSULE: slender, cylindrical, grooed, up to 10 cm long x 0.5 cm wide."

Kingdom:  Plantae
Phylum:  Tracheophyta
Class:  Liliopsida
Order:  Orchidales
Family:  Orchidaceae
Genus:  Dendrophylax
Species:  lindenii