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Scientists Work With Cuba To Bring Lost Orchids Back To Florida State Park

Mike Owen, park biologist at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in Florida, documents an orchid growing on a cypress tree. (Greg Allen/NPR)

By Greg Allen, NPR, SouthFloridaReporter.com, Nov. 21, 2015 – With their garish blooms, there’s something special about orchids, and in the U.S., no place has more native species than Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. The state park in Southwest Florida was the setting for the 1998 book The Orchid Thief. Scientists there are working to bring back varieties lost through the years to poachers and habitat destruction.

If you visit Fakahatchee, you likely will run into park biologist Mike Owen. He has spent most of his career there, though he says that’s not as significant as it sounds.

“The ecosystem is 5,000 years old,” he says, “so 22 years is maybe a wink in that time span.”

This type of shallow swamp is found only in Florida, and Fakahatchee is the largest. Water drains south from Lake Okeechobee through stands of cypress trees with thick, 100-foot-tall canopies.

To see orchids in their native habitat, Owen takes visitors on swamp walks. We step off a park trail and are soon wading through sawgrass and water 9 inches deep. Owen is wearing rubber boots and carrying a depth gauge that doubles as a walking stick. “Notice how clear that water is,” he says.

Owen was author Susan Orlean’s guide in Fakahatchee when she wrote The Orchid Thief. Orchids, Owen says, are especially susceptible to poachers.