Everyone loves the flowery brilliance of orchids. In addition to decoration, they serve as edible garnishes at restaurants and are the source of vanilla to flavor our foods. Orchids are native to every state in the United States, even Alaska! When settlers first came to South Florida, they found the trees covered with fragrant and colorful orchids. Once the railroad provided easier access to the area, the orchids were stripped from the trees and shipped north to be used as disposable decorations. Fast forward 135 years and most of these orchids are endangered and rare. The ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii, is in such demand that it is illegally harvested and traded — a story told in The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.
Inspired by the success of a program in Singapore, Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, one of my favorite spots around Miami, started a program called The Million Orchid Project. The plan is to use micropropagation in the lab to grow large batches of the orchids that will eventually grow up and be transplanted to trees around urban Miami. “Within five years we expect to have flowering orchids in a wide variety of local urban settings, especially in the places where people work, learn, and commute,” they write on the program’s website.
I toured the propagation lab this morning. Workers start by gathering the minute seeds of the orchids from the seed pods. The average seed pod yields 10-15,000 seeds. These seeds are put into bottles that contain a sterile, humid environment with a growth medium that contains sugar, salts, proteins, and charcoal. The lab (see photos) has about 150,000 plants in 1200 bottles. As the little orchid seedlings grow, they are transplanted into bottles every few months, using sterile technique to protect them from mold and bacteria. Once they are too big for the bottles, they are taken to the nursery where they are planted in trays and kept in a greenhouse. In less than a year they will be ready to go out into the world! The million orchid project started in 2012 and the first orchids were transplanted into trees in Coral Gables in 2014. The goal is to transplant all of them into publically accessible urban landscapes around Miami.