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HIALEAH, Fla. (AP) — About 20 rare cowhorn orchids were returned Friday to the South Florida landscape that was once their home before suburban sprawl and over-zealous collectors nearly wiped them out.
Jason Downing of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden showed about 25 high school students how to use burlap twine and coconut fibers to tie the plants with thin green leaves and dangling white roots onto tree branches in an arboretum at Jose Marti MAST Academy in Hialeah.
"There are very few of these left in the wild," he told them. A single box of seedlings held by one student had twice as many plants as the largest known cluster of cowhorn orchids growing in the wild.
MILLION ORCHID PROJECT
Fairchild has partnered with 30 Miami-Dade County schools to help grow a million orchids in labs and then transplant them back into suburban trees. The project is based on one in Singapore, where lab-grown orchids successfully reproduced once transplanted onto city trees.
Over 650,000 seedlings are growing in Fairchild labs, and thousands more are growing in classroom labs.
Orchids produce millions of dust-like seeds, and cultivating them in glass bottles ensures that each grows enough to survive when moved outdoors to native Florida trees such as live oaks and buttonwoods, researchers say.
The project focuses on five orchid species native to Florida but now rare due to development and poaching: the Florida butterfly orchid, the cigar or cowhorn orchid, the dollar orchid, the clamshell orchid and the pine pink orchid.
Researchers hope the urban conservation project will revive native plant populations and attract migrating birds and pollinators.
Collectors in the early 1900s ripped through Florida's orchids, and a federal study of Everglades National Park released earlier this year found that orchid populations there still haven't recovered from the damage.
For example, the cowhorn orchids that early Florida settlers found growing as large as half a wagon-load are now considered critically imperiled.
Federal officials worry that social media posts tagged with geographic data may lead more people to the blooms most at risk for poaching.
But Downing, who oversees the orchid project's school outreach program, says planting more orchids in public spaces may keep poachers from stealing them from Florida's swamps.
"If we plant more, we may devalue them," he said.
The orchids planted on school campuses will continue to be monitored by students, and the data will be compared with data collected from wild orchids.
The project has been a revelation for Florida students who have seen orchids on sale in supermarkets but never anywhere else in the suburban landscape.
"They didn't realize these weren't exotic plants," said Jose Marti MAST Academy Assistant Principal Ivette Diaz-Rubio. "Now they realize they are part of what's supposed to be in nature."
Online: Million Orchid Project, http://www.fairchildgarden.org/Science-Conservation/The-Million-Orchid-Project