Plant Profile: the Ghost Orchid

Figure 1. Ghost orchid flower.
Picture Credit – M.Fournier HBI.  
 This post is one of a series from Botany professor Nisse Goldberg's students at Jacksonville University. Student authors: Danielle D’Amato, Shanda Larson, Rachel FrankCommon Name:

American Ghost Orchid
Scientific Name: Dendrophylax lindenii

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Orchidales
Family: Orchidaceae
Genus: DendrophylaxSpecies: Dendrophylax lindenii

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants. With over 30,000 species of orchids found in just about every part of the planet. While most plants are rooted in the soil, orchids can grow “in the air” with their aerial roots attached to rocks and tree trunks. Found almost exclusively in southern Florida, Haitian, and Cuban swamps, these orchids grow best in high humidity and still air.

Dendrophylax lindenii or American ghost orchid is one of the most famous of the orchids that grow in the United States. It is known as the ghost orchid because the flower can appear to be floating in the air, due to the roots blending so well with the tree. The numerous roots are generally greyish-green with white marking and radiate from the base of the plant. Unlike many other orchids, the ghost orchid is leafless, leading researchers to believe that photosynthesis may occur in the roots.

Dendrophylax lindenii is an epiphyte, meaning that it is a plant that can be found growing on living plants or plant matter, like the occasional dead tree trunk. Normally ghost orchids are found attached to the trunks of pop ash or pond apple trees, but have also been seen on some cypress, live oak, and royal palm trees.

Each ghost orchid can bloom one to ten flowers that open one at a time from May to September; each flower can last up to two weeks. The white flowers are up to 5 centimeters across and 10 centimeters long. The flower itself has three green sepals, two green petals, and one larger white petal. This lip or labellum forks at the end, resembles the back legs of a jumping frog due to the elongated tips twisting slightly downward (Figure 1).
Figure 2. Giant sphinx moth, showing long proboscis.
Picture credit: Esculapio.

The major pollinator for these plants is the giant sphinx moth, which is the only local insect with a long enough proboscis (Figure 2). During hot and humid summer nights, the flower emits a strong apple-like scent to attract the moth. As these moths feed on the nectar, they pick up pollen on their heads and carry it to the next orchid. Seeds are produced 10-12 months after pollination.

The rare ghost orchid is listed as an endangered species, protected by both state and federal laws from unauthorized collection. The primary reason for the ghost orchid becoming endangered is due to humans poaching the plant. Climate change is another reason for the orchid’s decline. Florida has been experiencing freezes in the winter, and this affects the orchid’s growth. Approximately 2,000 Dendrophylax lindenii are thought to exist in Florida today. Ghost orchids can be purchased from authorized venders, but growing a seedling can be challenging.

It is possible to go and see these plants in their natural environment by visiting areas such as Big Cypress Swamp, the Fakahatchee Swamp, and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary located near Naples, FL.

Basic orchid care for beginners. About Orchids n. pag. About orchids . Web. 7 Nov 2011. .

BellaOnline's Orchids Editor. Web. 6 Nov 2011. .

Durkee, Debra. How to Grow Ghost Orchids Flowers. eHow home. 2011.

Ghosts of the Fakahatchee Swamp. Linda’s Orchid Pages. 1996-2011.

Ghost Orchid. Mahalo. Learn Anything. 2011.

Kingsley Taylor, Walter. "Dendrophylax lindenii." Wild florida photo n. pag. Wild florida photo. Web. 6 Nov 2011. .

Little, Chris. Ghost Orchid Info. Your Dendrophylax Lindenii Information Location.

Subrahmanyam, Prem. Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). Florida’s Native and Naturalized Orchids. 2008.

Taylor, Susan. "Orchid plant profile-Dendrophylax lindenii." Minerva WebWorks LLC

Also see our previous blog posts: Florida Native Plant Society Blog: Ghost Orchid Controversy and Florida Native Plant Society Blog: Ghost Orchid Controversy Resolved


dkchristi said…
The "super ghost" discovered in 2007 at Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary actually had 12 blooms at one blooming and up to 20 blooms in one season; it blooms generally three times a year but in one year bloomed five times. It is magnificent to see during its season from late May through September (at its own choice) and is the star of Ghost Orchid, a novel of mystery and magic by D. K. Christi, inspired by this orchid, praised by NPR for the beauty of the Everglades that shines through on every page and the ghost orchid, the heart and soul of the story.
Prem said…
One clarification: In addition to epiphytic (tree dwelling) orchids, many orchid species are terrestrials. In fact, more than half of the species native to Florida are terrestrial.

The Florida Native Orchid Blog
Neat! Is it a subspecies of Polyrrhiza/Dendrophylax lindenii?
I didn't see anything in the blog about orchids being exclusively epiphytic, but you are absolutely right - they can be terete, epiphytic, or lithophytic. Phaius tankervillae was a wildly popular ground orchid in south Florida not so long ago, and I've seen Spathoglottis sp. sold throughout the state... not to mention all of the wild native orchids that you've photographed so beautifully! Thanks for adding that bit of info, Prem!
dkchristi said…
It is just a magnificent plant that may be fifty or more years old, just visible in 2007 due to hurricane winds or some other change in the viewing environment. Orchids are highly evolved and particular about their environment, ghost orchids in particular. This plant has found a well-suited environment of nutrients, light, tree, moisture, air, etc. Usually, they are found at about eye level, not so high! The blooms have ranged from quite large and prolific in the early bloomings to a few, smaller blooms later in the season. Several different views of both the Corkscrew Swamp ghost orchid and an award-winning domestic grown ghost orchid are found at posted by visitors to the sight in the albums section - exquisite!

Popular posts from this blog

Australian Pine: One of Florida's Least Wanted

Native Trees and Plants You Will See Nearly Everywhere in Florida