I'm splashing through potholes on Janes Scenic Drive southbound towards Everglades City. As I drive out of the deeply wooded Fakahatchee Strand and enter the open prairie to the east the full moon is rising just over the horizon. My eyes are focused at the far reaches of my high beams hoping that I might see a panther crossing the road. My chances here are as good as they are anywhere in the world. But that's not the reason for my visit. I spent the last three days covered in mosquitoes and sweat trying to photograph the elusive Ghost Orchid. My last visit to the Fakahatchee was in February during the first month of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. There were mosquitoes then too but conditions were idyllic compared to now.
The Ghost Orchid Dendrophylax lindenii is a wonder of nature. It spends 99% of its life dormant as a nondescript brown growth, hardly distinguishable from a twig, on the side of a pond apple or cypress tree. Then for a week each summer a few plants produce ephemeral white flowers that glow spirit-like against the dark trunks and mud of the swamp. Approximately 2000 individual plants reside in the swamps of South Florida. Of these, only one in ten bloom each year, and of those only one in ten are pollinated. The fact that Ghost Orchids are able to reproduce at all seems like a miracle. The biological reason for their magical blooms is to attract pollinators, each flower emerging for the chance to disperse genetic material to another and continue the life of the species. Only one insect, the Giant Sphinx Moth, has a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar and the end of the orchid's nearly six inch nectar spur. The moth must be patient to find such a rare meal. This is perhaps less surprising when you learn that the moth itself spends an entire month of its own life cycle dormant beneath the dirt. If you're a moth or a photographer, as patient as you may be, when Ghost Orchids are blooming, it is time to move.
I was not planning to be in the swamp these first days of July. I was thinking further down the road. Last week I picked up the phone and called Renee Rau, the director of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, who had so kindly hosted our expedition team a few months before. I was beginning to pull together photographs for my October Florida Wildlife Corridor exhibit at Selby Gardens. One picture living in my mind but missing from my portfolio was the Ghost Orchid. Selby Gardens is one world's leading centers for epiphytes, including bromeliads and orchids. I really wanted an orchid picture to complete the show. I was thinking I might make the drive down to the swamp later in the summer or preferably in early fall. But Renee told me to come right away. She'd spoken with biologist Mike Owen who said that there were several orchids in bloom and that they would probably not persist for more than a few days. The flowers are delicate from first bloom and once pollinated vanish within a day. I did my best to get out of town right away. But my truck was in pieces in the driveway because I was installing new lights, a second battery, a refrigerator system and other improvements for the fall field season. So I had to put things back together in a hurry. I also had to buy a camera. I had sold my D800 and still waiting for a D800E. So I scurried over to an electronics store to pick up an amateur D3200 hoping that the resolution would suffice. I also had to finish some repairs around the house. The dryer wasn't working and I couldn't leave Suzie stranded while I was out of town. So after spending too many hours in the attic and carport, tools in hand, I packed the truck and hit the road.
The last few days in the Fakahatchee have been intense. The sun doesn't set until nearly 9:00 PM meaning I don't get out of the swamp until 10:00 PM. Then the sun rises again at 6:30 AM so I have to leave the hotel around 5:00 AM. Between archiving photographs and finding food, I haven't found much time for sleep. My goal has been to capture the essence of the Ghost Orchid in a photograph. I tried a number of compositions and techniques but in the end kept coming back to the straightforward portrait. The first word that comes to mind to describe the Ghost Orchid is clean, so I suppose it's appropriate that I was taking a clean and simple approach to the photograph. After all, the flower itself is so elegant, its natural form is not something that can really be improved with camera angle or lighting. So I did my best to soak in as much of the orchid's essential beauty as it would share in a single frame.
The dim swamp light did not make things easy. Attaining sharp focus was a challenge. Especially in natural light. The orchid has a lot of relief, meaning that a large aperture number is necessary to get most of the subject in focus. That also means slow shutter speeds. Most exposures required between two and 15 seconds. But even with no wind the orchid had a tendency to dance. I guess that makes sense. The large delicate flower is suspended in the air by an improbably thin stem. A small waft of wind, temperature gradient, drop of water or wing beat of a mosquito is enough to send the orchid dancing. Once it starts, it doesn't seem to want to stop. I guess I shouldn't have expected such a rare being to surrender its image easily.
Liking the green hues from the canopy and rich out of focus brown of the background, I shot hundreds of exposures in natural lighting hoping to have a few that will pass the grade for sharpness and clarity. I also made a bunch of photographs with flash, trading depth of focus and sharpness for a black background. Unfortunately I only had one flash and no sync cord. This made things even more challenging. During the course of a one or two second exposure, I would manually trigger the flash, often two or three times. Positioning the flash to the side seemed to provide good texture helping it not look like a white stencil against a dark background. Though I wish I had multiple lights. Instead I tried various combinations of bouncing and diffusion seeking to capture a lighting effect suitable for the white flower. The thing I was missing most with my one light setup was a rim light or backlight. I realized this after reviewing my first two days of photographs. So my last afternoon in the field I experimented with some backlighting. I placed a reflector and an empty soft box at angles close to the camera lens hoping to get some reflected front light to fill in the darker areas that were not translucent to the backlighting. The effort was exhausting and I imagine the orchid was tired of me too.
When I packed up in the dark and prepared to walk out of the swamp for the last time, I took a moment without my camera to reflect on the beauty of the orchid that had just shared itself with me. I gave thanks for the beautiful creation and offered a prayer that the orchid might fulfill its purpose by attracting a moth in the coming moonlight. The canopy of the West Slough is open enough that the full moon could radiate through and allow the orchid to glow in full glory. I imagined it luring any moth within miles. Whether to giant sphinx moth, photographer or passing panther or bear, the Ghost Orchid under full moonlight must be a sight to behold. Protected within the longest flooded strand forest in the world, not far from the bustle of modern Florida, the ancient ritual of tree, flower and moth was safe to unfold for this orchid and its extended family secluded in the darkness.
I would express appreciation to partners at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, especially Renee Rau and Mike Owen, for their help with this project and general support of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. It is thanks to people like them that the Ghost Orchid still survives in the Florida Wilderness.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
The Scent of Scandal by Craig Pittman