ghost orchid

A Field Trip to View a Newly Described Orchid Species

On September 8th, 2007, I had the privilege of attending a field trip to see a newly described orchid species in the state of Florida. While Florida has a rather unique assemblage of orchids, it is not very often that a new species is described here. There have been, in fact, only four new species described in the state within the past fifty years. Hence, this represented a unique opportunity to see a historically significant find.

Having arranged with the trip leader to attend (along with my teenage son and expert orchid spotter, Joshua), we set out early on a Saturday morning to make the two hour drive to a location somewhere in west-central Florida. It was still dark outside, with Venus making her way up from the horizon, soon to be enveloped in the sun's light. It was warm and humid this morning as can be expected in Florida in early autumn. Fog created many a morning shroud over the landscape - tatters of mist, sometimes hovering above the ground in an eerie layered effect. Because we needed to make good time, we could not afford to stop to record these sights, except in our memories.

As we approached our destination, it became clear that we were making better time than we had hoped. The sun was just starting to rise as we drove past a small boat landing, beckoning us to stop and drink in its beauty. This afforded us a chance to take a few pictures as the sun peered its first morning rays over the lake.

Florida sunrise Florida Sunrise. (click to view full size)

Even with our diversion, we arrived with an hour to spare before the field trip was to start. More chances to shoot some nice photographs! We unpacked the photographic gear once more and headed out on a short morning walk down the main preserve road. As we walked by a stand of large slash pine trees, one stood out from all the others. It appeared that a giant claw had scraped the tree from many feet up all the way down to the ground. This hardly seemed like something man-made, and as we stood and debated for a moment, it became all too clear as we located the top end of the damage some 60 feet up the tree. It had been struck by lightning.

Lightning damaged pine tree Lightning Damaged Pine Tree (click to view full size)

The heat the lightning generated in the bark of the tree as it electrified it literally caused that narrow strip of the tree to explode. Pieces of bark could be found a good 30 feet from the tree itself, testifying to the awesome heat and energy generated by a single lightning bolt. Later that day, we would find out from our host that this wasn't the first time that this tree had been struck--another time had occurred some five or six years earlier, and the tree prior to the new strike looked like it was going to survive. He surmised that this time might be the death knell for that tree. Only time will tell if he is right.

Not too far away from the damaged tree, in the cool of the morning, a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata) was warming its wings in the sun's rays.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata) Gulf Fritillary (click to view full size)

I was fortunate to have arrived there at that moment, since a few minutes after taking this photograph, it was flitting about the meadow, sufficiently warmed by the sunlight like some tiny solar-powered toy. Further along the path, we encountered a few more species of wildflowers. Some of these wildflowers included Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) and Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum).

Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow
click to view full size
Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) Butterfly Pea
click to view full size

A quick check of our time showed that we were in need of getting back before the field trip was to begin. We returned to to our rendezvous point and met up with the rest of the group: Paul Rebman, Dennis Shuefelt, Mike and Effie Smith, and our guide, Joel De Angelis. We were fortunate that the 4wd vehicle that he had secured for us had enough seats for everyone. We piled our gear into the car and headed into the preserve. The plant locality itself was not too far of a drive, located in an area that used to be a cow pasture prior to the preserve being bought by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1990.

Pteroglossaspis pottsii habitat Pteroglossaspis pottsii Habitat. (click to view full size)

As the car lulled to a stop along a small track through an open field, we saw the plants for the first time. Growing in a stand of about 500 plants strong, scattered all about the area were Pteroglossaspis pottsii. Everywhere we looked, we saw the slender, reddish flowering stems rising well above the grasses. The bases of the plants held several light-green, deeply ribbed leaves, with the inflorescences arising from the plant bases. At the tips of these inflorescences (varying from 1 foot to around 3 feet), one could see anywhere from five to more than a dozen small flowers arranged in a loose spiral about the stem. The sepals and petals of each flower arched over the lip like a tiny Sikh turban. The Sikh effect was even more enhanced by the dark lip protruding beneath like a long beard. The flowers did have a slight fragrance, smelling like a cross between cough syrup and Clearasil.

Field collections were made of this species in October 2006 and the official description was published in the North American Native Orchid Journal in March 2007. The species is closely related (and probably derived from) Pteroglossaspis ecristata. Plants were originally thought to be P. ecristata v. purpurea, but it differs from this species in several key characteristics. P. pottsii grows in a more open, dry grassland habitat than is typical for P. ecristata (yet, paradoxically, it also grows in wetter marginal areas where P. ecristata would not typically be found). Plants of P. pottsii have a shorter stature, more thickened corms and leaves, and smaller flowers with a more uniform rose coloring. They grow in various localities throughout the preserve, but the largest stand is the one we were observing in the open pasture, covering an area many acres in size. P. ecristata has not been observed to occur in stands nearly this populous, seeming to grow in more isolated groups or as single, widely scattered individuals within an area. These characteristics lead to the conclusion that P. pottsii deserves its own species designation separate from its parent species.

We spent several hours photographing plants and flowers with a constant breeze (which only occasionally calmed down for a few seconds at a time) which posed a significant challenge. The land forms somewhat of a saddle shape in this area, funneling and concentrating the slightest breeze into a miniature gale. Because the spikes were constantly wavering in the breeze, exposure times had to be kept small and apertures more wide open, which reduced the effective depth of field. We took over seven hundred photos of these plants, in the hope that a few would turn out. As expected, a fair number of them did suffer from motion blur or lack of focus as the spikes weaved in and out of the focal point of the lens. Despite these obstacles, a number of these photographs turned out reasonably well. These are presented below:

Pteroglossaspis pottsii - plants in a stand
Pteroglossaspis pottsii Plants in a Stand (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - plants in a stand
Pteroglossaspis pottsii inflorescence (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - spike against blue sky
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - spike against blue sky (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - spike against green background
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - spike against green background (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - angled spike
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - angled spike (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii spike against grassy background
Pteroglossaspis pottsii spike against grassy background (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - close up throat shot
Pteroglossaspis pottsii Close Up Throat Shot (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii Close Up - Column Detail
Pteroglossaspis pottsii Close Up - Column Detail (click to view full size)
Pteroglossaspis pottsii - Closeup Against Blue Sky
Pteroglossaspis pottsii Closeup Against Blue Sky (click to view full size)

Josh and I, along with the rest of the group, spent another two hours touring the preserve in our host's 4 wheel drive. Some of the deep sand that we went through would have easily mired a family car. At one point, we exited the vehicle to look at some Spiranthes plants (most likely S. odorata) with leaves just emerging along the margins of a swampy area. In the trees above, we spotted Epidendrum magnoliae v. mexicanum in full bloom. This is one of three epiphytic orchids found in central Florida, bearing translucent green flowers which become intensely fragrant at night. E. magnoliae v. magnoliae actually grows well outside the state of Florida, spreading along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana and along the Atlantic seaboard into North Carolina.

Epidendrum magnoliae v. mexicanum Epidendrum magnoliae v. mexicanum (click to view full size)

We departed company shortly after noon and drove several hours to a location well to the southeast of the P. pottsii locality. As we were driving along one road at a fairly good speed, I happened to glance over to the side of the road and noticed something very similar to the P. pottsii spikes that we had seen earlier that day, only taller and a light yellow-green. It turned out to be a rather tall spike of P. ecristata growing in an abandoned pasture. A search of the immediate area revealed no more plants, perfectly in line with the more solitary nature of this species. An hour or two later, we were driving through a nearby state forest with the sunlight waning for the evening, turning the sky a fiery orange-red. As I stopped the car and gazed out into the nearby scrub, I located an immature flowering stem of another P. ecristata. Josh and I set a date to come back the next weekend to see what a search of the surrounding area might reveal, but that is another story.

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