A slight, delicate orchid with a penchant for travel is popping up in Miami-Dade County in disturbed and abandoned lots as well as in manicured and mulched garden beds. It is unbidden, not a native, and seems to be finding its way to new areas hither and yon.
Tracking down its identity has been a venture worthy of Inspector Clouseau, and finding the pollinator continues to be a scientific Tropic Hunt based on some cool clues and little-known facts. Much about it still mystifies.
Its one-inch flowers are mostly green, although the lip is white and pink. The leaves occasionally appear after the flower stalk. It grows in the ground, and when small, it has a roundish bulb that resembles a houseplant called the pregnant onion.
Because it's being spotted in locations miles apart, questions are buzzing: Why is this plant becoming comfortable in South Florida?
''It's an exciting botanical mystery. Where did it come from? And is it going to be a problem?'' said Suzanne Koptur, an ecologist at Florida International University. ``It's a very tough, strong orchid that seems to pop up from very small seeds that find what they need in that cypress mulch.''
Will it be like the African monk orchid, Oeceoclades maculata, which once made the list of invasive plants compiled by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council? That orchid has moved into all seven counties south of Lake Okeechobee, although it has been removed from the FEPPC's list of bad plants. Or will it be a harmless lounge-about like the lawn orchid Zeuxine strateumatica?
The monk orchid might displace native seedlings of tropical hardwoods, rare ferns, wildflowers of shady hammocks ''and even things like the wild coco, another native orchid, Eulophia alta ,'' Koptur said. Or, the monk orchid might be totally harmless. Experts disagree.
The new Eulophia orchid was first noticed last year by one of Koptur's neighbors, Harvey Bernstein, who found it growing in the mulch beds around his succulent collection. Bernstein is a plant curator at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and more likely to spot an unusual specimen than most people.
When he didn't recognize the plant, he took it to Koptur, but she didn't recognize it, either.
It worked its way through several orchid growers until, finally, Bob Pemberton, a research associate with Fairchild, solved the name-that-orchid mystery.
The little orchid is Eulophia graminea. It hails from Southeast Asia, Burma and subtropical islands of the Pacific. It has become naturalized in northern Australia, and now, as if by magic, it is in the Redland, Miami Dade College's North Campus, Little River, South Miami and even in a parking lot on Virginia Key.
Until you get the hang of spotting them, young plants are slight enough to remain overlooked. The first rule of science: Be a good observer.
In Miami's Palm Grove neighborhood, just west of Belle Meade, orchid fancier Don Wallstedt found many eulophias growing in rocky soil in two empty lots.
''I saw these little flowers and knew it was an orchid but didn't know what kind,'' he said. ``I looked in Wild Orchids of Florida, which has every orchid that's ever been seen in Florida, and knew I had something unique.''
With the identity secured, the orchid sleuths turned to the next question: How did it get here?
There are Internet dealers. Pemberton found several of the plants for sale on eBay, as well as a Thai source offering the bulbs and even a source in Scotland offering plants. So it could have escaped from someone's local collection and made a beeline for the nearest mulch pile.
Its dust-like seeds may have been carried on the wind.
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