Pollination of the Ghost Orchid is a mysterious and rare phenomenon. The “theory” goes that a Giant Sphinx Moth will follow the white glow and scent of the Ghost Orchid like a shark in a chum slick to the flowering orchid at night and use its 6” proboscis (tongue) to drink the nectar of the Ghost Orchid from the nectar tube. During this visit the Sphinx Moth may ram its head into the anther cap/pollinia region of the orchid. In some cases the pollinia will stick to the head of the Giant Sphinx Moth. The same night or possibly one or two nights later the moth may visit another lucky Ghost Orchid. In this case the pollinia on the head of the Giant Sphinx Moth may be transferred to this second Ghost Orchid for a successful pollination! This sequence of events only happens approximately only one out of every ten flowers. This may not seem like a small number, but when you consider approximately one out of ten plants flowers it becomes more significant.
When you consider the odds, only about one out of one hundred Ghost Orchid plants forms a seeds pod in a given year. For example, in the summer of 2007, the 100± Fakahatchee Strand Ghost Orchids which were watched produced 25 known flowers and 5 known seed pods, and ‘Little Slough’ produced 22 Ghost Orchid flowers and 3 seed pods. This was a great Ghost Orchid pollination year for both locations as the pollination success rates were 20% and 14% respectively as compared to the average of about 10%.
One reason that 2007 may have been a good pollination year for the Ghost Orchid is due to the drought in southern Florida in 2007. How could this be? Well, part of the Giant Sphinx Moth’s life cycle is in a chrysalis for ~30 days underground. In dryer years the Sphinx Moth may have more habitat for its life cycle and therefore produce more moths to pollinate the Ghost Orchid.
It is believed that the Ghost Orchid can not self pollinate, but I have not been able to confirm this statement. The seed pod of the Ghost Orchid is much different that most orchid seed pods. It is long and slender between 1 and 6 inches in length and about ¼” wide. Roughly 10 to 12 months after a Ghost Orchid is pollinated the seed pod dries enough that it cracks open and many thousand seeds dehiss into the swamp air. The dust like seeds disperse in the humid air and some may be lucky enough to land on a host plant only to begin the cycle again. In the spring of 2008 I observed very small Ghost Orchid plants near mature plants which more than likely formed seed pods in 2006 and/or 2007.
For many months before the Ghost orchid blooms of 2008 I planned to video the Giant Sphinx Moth pollinating the Ghost Orchid. I knew this would be a tough challenge as this meeting was only theorized, no one had ever seen a Giant Sphinx Moth drinking nectar from the Ghost Orchid. Of course this situation is not likely to been seen by any sane or reasonable person since this meeting only happens on hot, humid summer nights, in the middle of the swamp, but I am neither sane nor reasonable when it come to Ghost Orchids. Proof of this is that I have been chased off the trail by an alligator (in the middle of the night, with no light) and charged by an angry black bear while visiting a new swamp. Both of those are stories for another time.
On May 17, 2008 my wife Misti and I were waiting in the humid swamp with mosquitoes buzzing in our ears when we heard a low hum of an insect heading our way. We soon saw motion in the moon light between the branches and leaves. We both knew this could be it! The moth circled us a few times and flew directly past Misti and then circled back to the Ghost Orchid. In the moonlight we could see something hovering at the orchid and then the orchid moved suddenly as the moth left. Success!!! Better yet, we had a video tape running and caught the whole thing on film. We weren’t 100% sure what we had on video until we got home and watched it. I couldn’t’ believe it when I watched the video the first time, such a feeling of success!