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The search for one of Florida’s most rare, endangered orchids
Credit: Luis Garcia Falcon

The search for one of Florida’s most rare, endangered orchids

April 14, 2022 at 10:00am

Hong Liu has spent months searching for one of Florida’s most rare and endangered orchids in Big Cypress National Preserve.

The cigar orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum) nearly vanished after decades of habitat destruction and overharvesting. People have reported sightings within the sprawling 729,000 acres of Big Cypress, but even with this anecdotal evidence, it’s remained a mystery just how many cigar orchids remain in the preserve. Their presence or severity of their loss has long remained a mystery. That’s why the U.S. National Park Service awarded Liu an $80,000 grant to lead the first study to determine the population size and structure of cigar orchids in Big Cypress.

Liu — a conservation ecologist and professor in FIU’s Department of Earth and Environment — has spent decades protecting some of the world’s most endangered orchids. She’s no stranger to the kind of projects that are massive and incredibly labor-intensive. 

“I know this will be very precious, valuable information for the National Park Service,” Liu said. “And I imagine this type of research will be repeated at some point in the future to compare the data, because only then can you understand whether the population is stable or not.”

Collecting this precious information begins with a search. The sheer size and scale of Big Cypress can make the prospect overwhelming — like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Instead of heading out blindly, Liu and her team started with the places people had reported seeing cigar orchids. They also got leads from social media. 

Liu’s team contacted orchid enthusiasts on Facebook who have visited Big Cypress. Several people jumped at the opportunity to help with the important project, like Matt Preiss and Michelle Berndgen. The couple accompanied Liu and her team into the field, showing them different locations where they’d seen cigar orchids.

“The project means a lot to me personally, because over the years I have grown tired of watching plants disappear,” Preiss said. “It made me smile when I was contacted by Dr. Liu’s group. This was my first opportunity to guide an ecologist and her students and aid with an orchid’s survival. I really enjoyed being around the students, who were very impressive in their knowledge of the plants and didn’t mind getting their feet wet.”

Wading through the swamp looking for orchids is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Liu’s fieldwork kicked off in December — a time when the leaves have dropped from the trees, allowing more sunlight to pour into the forest and making it easier to spot the orchids. Because they aren’t flowering yet, it’s not as simple as spotting the vivid splashes of yellow in the trees. Careful vigilance is needed to identify the characteristics of the plants, the unique bulbs and stems.

The team meets early in the morning and departs on Liu’s favorite mode of transportation — a swamp buggy — or Utility Terrain Vehicles.

A long drive is followed by an equally long hike. It can take four hours to reach the most remote locations. It’s tiring. There are days when the team doesn’t spot a single orchid.

“If we see one plant, that’s a good day,” Liu said. “The majority of the searches, we see one or two. That’s the norm. That’s how sparse this population is over the huge size of Big Cypress.”

The experience has been memorable and meaningful for Liu’s team. Especially for the undergraduate students who wouldn’t normally have the chance to do research like this so early in their academic career. FIU freshman Dominic Mellone wasn’t afraid of the demands of the fieldwork. An avid hiker, he was ready for the challenge. What he perhaps didn’t expect was the chance to take on such an active role in the overall research process. On one trip, he was the only student available to collect data.

“Before this project, I didn't have any research experience, however, learning these skills has undoubtedly prepared me to continue research in the future. That particular experience stands out to me because it showed the magnitude to which I was trusted and valued as a part of this team,” Mellone said. “As someone who has a great appreciation for the unique biodiversity of Florida and the Caribbean, and values conservation in general, this research has an added personal value, as I get to participate in the conservation of such natural areas.”

The field searches are winding down. Soon, the researchers will analyze the data and present their findings to the National Park Service.

It’s still too soon to tell what sort of conservation action might be needed in Big Cypress or if it would resemble another project Liu has been a part of — the restoration of cigar orchids in the nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. What Liu knows for certain is the work protecting these endangered orchids is just beginning, and she hopes to continue to be a part of it.

For now, Liu is savoring those final days in the field. Almost in celebration of the months of hard work, the cigar orchids recently flowered.

It’s a breathtaking sight, one that never fails, Liu said, to make her smile.