Plants can be endangered, too?

Written by Conservation Associate Julia Walker

When you hear ‘endangered species’, what do you think of? I would bet you’d think of manatees, panthers, sea turtles, and other animals. I’m here to shed some light on a few other endangered species that you might find right in your back yard!

Protecting our endangered species is important work. We are losing species at an alarming rate, and often it is due to human causes. With hard work from scientists (and people like you), species can be removed from the endangered species list.

The bald eagle is an excellent example; after a steep population decline, scientists discovered a major cause of this sudden drop. DDT, an insecticide, was contaminating their food source and causing the shells of their eggs to be too fragile. By banning DDT, bald eagles rebounded, and are no longer listed as an endangered species.

There is still a lot of work to do, though. In the United States alone, there are 1,662 endangered and threatened species. (See the breakdown here from USFWS).

However, did you know: 946 of those listed species are plants?!

Florida has many natural treasures, but perhaps none quite so coveted as the orchid. It may be because Florida is a hot-spot of orchid diversity. The National Park Service reports orchid diversity is the highest here in the Everglades, over any other NPS unit in the continental US. In such a warm and humid climate, orchids receive plenty of moisture and nutrients, without hurting the trees they grow on.

As a result of their beauty and prestige, their populations have been exploited for commercial gain. In the 1800s, the railroad first came to Florida and began shipping orchids north as a house plant. Due to a century of over-harvesting, their populations have steadily decreased. According to the National Park Service, they believe collection is the direct cause of the loss of three species in Everglades National Park.

So now, we have determined that plants can be endangered, too. The good news is we have started to protect these precious plants.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects both plants and animals on a federal level, but 32 states have laws that also protect endangered plants. (USFS). This means endangered plants are protected from the trade industry, and require permits to collect or study these species.

Here in Florida, we have some beautiful and interesting orchids. The five species below can all be found here in Collier County. Take a look to see some of Florida’s hidden treasure.

Craighead’s Noddingcaps

The Craighead Noddingcap is a small orchid, just 4–6 centimeters high, which blooms in late June to early July. They grow in forests and woodlands, and open at night to show their beautiful purple and white flowers. However, this orchid is incredibly imperiled. Due to habitat destruction and over collecting, there are only three known occurrences of this species. (North American Orchid Center)

(Photo credit: Florida Native Plant Society)

Crooked Spur Orchid

An interesting orchid, the Crooked Spur Orchid is not the traditional idea of beauty. This orchid likes to grow in hardwood hammock habitats on the trunks or thick branches of royal palms, pond apple, and pop ash. As citizens of Naples, we should take pride in the fact it grows in the Fakahatchee Swamp. This orchid self-fertilizes and its tiny flowers, only 2–4 millimeters, are an apricot-orange color. This orchid is endangered here in Florida, where it has a wide range across the state. (North American Orchid Center)

(Photo credit: Friends of Fakahatchee; North American Orchid Center)

Tiny Orchid

This incredible orchid has a wide range across the Caribbean in places like Jamaica and Puerto Rico. However, here in Florida, it has one population site in the Fakahatchee Swamp and Big Cypress area. This orchid grows to be about 5–7 millimeters high, but its deep red flowers are very small at just 2 millimeters. They grow on cypress branches and trunks of oaks in hardwood cypress swamps and wet hammock habitats. This small orchid is easy to miss, and unfortunately we may have missed it forever. The Tiny Orchid has not been seen for several years and may never reappear. (North American Orchid Center)

(Photo credits: North American Orchid Center)

Leafless Beaked Orchid

This striking beauty is the Leafless Beaked Orchid. There can be about 10–40 of the bright coral to brick colored flowers on one stem. These bright flowers attract hummingbirds looking for nectar, and in turn they pollinate this orchid. The Leafless Beaked Orchid can be found in the sandy soils along highways, near pastures, and in dry flatlands in Central and South America. Its population there is stable, but they can be found here in Florida where it is critically imperiled. This orchid is threatened due to over collecting and also by the changing water levels caused by humans. (North American Orchid Center)

(Photo credits: Patricia Hunter)

Ghost Orchid

The Ghost Orchid blooms in June to display its large white flower, which has two long lobes on the sides. It can be found in the hardwood hammocks and cypress domes in three southern counties in Florida, which includes Collier. It can also be found in Cuba and the West Indies. However, it is endangered here due to illegal collection of this orchid and wetland disruptions. If it doesn’t have enough issues, it is believed to be pollinated by one creature: the Giant Sphinx Moth. The Giant Sphinx Moth, pictured above, has a long enough proboscis to reach the Ghost Orchid’s nectar to pollinate the flowers in flight. (North American Orchid Center)

Here in Collier County, we have a number of natural treasures to protect. We have come a long way in protecting our environment, but there is still work to do. To learn more about orchids, the Ghost Orchid specifically, the Everglades, and more: come visit the Conservancy of Southwest Florida! Be sure to stop in the Dalton Discovery Center to find out how we can protect these natural wonders.

(Photo credits: Keith Davis)

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