Agri Leader

Project aims to bring orchids back to Miami area

At one time, orchids—one of nature’s most charismatic flowers—bloomed all around South Florida.

Yet, as more people reached Florida at the turn of the 20th century and picked the flowers to take them home, that natural growth dwindled.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables hopes to reintroduce native orchids to the Miami area with its Million Orchid Project.

Staff members and volunteers at Fairchild are planning to grow millions of native orchids in targeted urban areas in and around Miami, including schools, parks and neighborhoods. Leaders at Fairchild got the idea from a similar model at the Singapore Botanic Garden, which replanted the country’s native orchids on city street trees.

The Million Orchid Project has three goals, Amy Padolf, Fairchild’s director of education, said.

“We want to conserve endangered South Florida orchid species, we want to include educational components to get kids involved, and we want to add urban beautification,” Padolf said

At Fairchild’s micropropagation laboratory, orchid seed capsules are growing in more than 1,000 test tubes. Each seed capsule could potentially generate more than 12,000 seeds.

Orchid species they are growing include the butterfly, cowhorn, dollar, cockleshell, and pink orchids (love those names!).

At the Miami magnet school TERRA Environmental Research Institute, students this past school year helped track growing conditions for 10,000-plus orchid seedlings kept there.

The information students collected on lighting conditions and growth provided helpful data for Fairchild, said Padolf. Just three weeks ago, students were able to take their orchid seedlings and plant them in trees at TERRA.

The experience helps students to learn about science and have a sense of ownership once the orchids bloom, Padolf said.

Other South Florida schools are starting to participate in the orchid project, as well, Padolf said.

Fairchild also did a planting outside of Coral Gables City Hall earlier this year, Padolf said. Although a number of South Florida areas are vying for orchid plantings, Fairchild is deciding where to plant other seedlings based on the trees available, tree locations and other factors. For example, the orchid seedlings need to be planted on certain kinds of trees, such as live oak trees, Padolf said.

There are some native orchids that still grow in South Florida, including two types that occur naturally at Fairchild, but they grow in very small numbers.

Although orchid seeds can move in the air by the wind, they need to land in “just the right location” to grow properly, according to information on the project from Fairchild.

The odds of those seedlings landing in a perfect spot are low in South Florida’s urban environment.

Both Fairchild and the American Orchid Society, which is housed at Fairchild, have partnered to undertake the massive project.

Although Padolf wouldn’t reveal the project’s exact cost, she said they are using a number of funding sources and are searching for more funding to help support the manpower involved with the project.

In five years, Fairchild believes the blooming orchids will be in numerous urban settings. The folks at Fairchild are well aware that some thefts will occur.

“We know some people will take the orchids,” she said. Still, Fairchild knows the orchid project will bring beauty and a sense of pride to residents who will enjoy seeing the sensual flowers regularly.