S Nematology (Botany) Circular No. 56
Fla. Dept. Agric. & Consumer Services
Division 4ff9 7W story
THE GHOST ORCHID, POLYRRHIZA LINE University of Florida
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES IN FLORIDA
K. R. Langdon
The ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii (Lindley) Cogniaux, (also known as palm-
poly, white butterfly orchid, or frog orchid) is the only representative of the
genus found in Florida. There are about 5 species in this genus, all limited
to the West Indies except P. lindenii which occurs in both the West Indies and
southwestern-most Florida, mainly Collier County. Polyrrhiza lindenii grows on
tree trunks and branches in wet hammocks and swamps. It is widely scattered
over the area but generally not abundant anywhere. Although not particularly
rare at this time, it is endangered because of habitat destruction and over-
The ghost orchid has no leaves and almost no stem. It consists almost entirely
of thick, greenish roots which grow over the surface of the bark of trees and
serve the function of both leaves and roots. In the center of the cluster of
roots is the small bit of stem that is the body of the plant. From this bit of
stem arises the flower stalk terminated by usually 1 or occasionally 2 or 3
flowers (fig. 1). Sometimes several flowers will develop in succession from
the same stem.
Fig. 1. Polyrrhiza lindenii flowering on
tree branch in Fackahatchee Swamp.
Fig. 2. Closeup of flower of P.
Contribution No. 202, Bureau of Nematology, P. 0. Box 1269, Gainesville, FL 32602
The flower.has an unusual appearance (fig. 2). The petals and sepals are nar-
row, gredeish white, up to about 1 inch (25 mm) long. The lip has a broad
blade with 2 lateral lobes and 2 long, narrow appendages at the end plus a long,
slender, hollow spur at the base. The whole aspect suggests to some the fanci-
ful resemblance to a frog suspended in mid-air or a fairy-like ghost frozen in
flight. Luer,'41972) makes the statement with which I heartily concur, "While
wading knee deep j.'swamp water, the thrill of chancing upon a plant in flower
will never be forgotten."
The spectacular flowers of this plant have made it a prize of collectors. Un-
fortunately it is difficult to grow in cultivation, resulting in death of a
very high percentage of collected plants. This loss often results in the col-
lector obtaining more plants from the woods to replace the dead ones. Such
collecting, losses, and recollecting plus development and other land clearing
operations resulting in habitat destruction are seriously depleting the numbers
of this very attractive species.
Successful cultivation of P. lindenii is dependent on approximating in culture
the natural growing conditions where the plant grows wild. A reasonable ap-
proximation can be obtained by mounting the plant on a cypress or tree-fern
slab and maintaining it in a well lighted, evaporative cooled greenhouse. The
evaporative cooling provides the necessary humidity, and the air movement from
the fans eliminates stagnant air and prevents free water from remaining on the
plants for prolonged periods. Under these conditions the success rate should
be reasonably good, but under other cultural conditions may be very poor. In
general the plants should be left to grow in the wild.
Survey and Detection:
Current Florida law (Section 581.185) requires a permit to collect or sell 3 or
more plants of this or any other endangered species. Plant specialists should
check nurseries, flea markets, etc. for the presence of leafless species of
orchids growing on slabs, placques, logs, branches, etc. If such plants are
found, their identity should be determined and, if they are ghost orchids, de-
termine if the person involved has a valid collecting permit.
Correll, D. S. 1950. Native orchids of North America north of Mexico. Chronica
Botanica. Waltham, Mass. 399p.
Hawkes, A. D. 1965. Encyclopediaof cultivated orchids. Faber & Faber. London.
Long, R. W., and Olga Lakela. 1971. A flora of tropical Florida. University
of Miami Press. 962p.
Luer, C. A. 1972. The native orchids of Florida. New York Botanical Garden.
Rickett, H. W. 1967. Wild flowers of the United States. Vol. 2. The south-
eastern states. Part 1. 322p.
Small, J. K. 1933. Manual of the southeastern flora. University of North
Carolina Press. Chapel Hill. 1554p.