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5 October 2007

Spectres of the swamp

Just in time for Halloween, Eclectic Epiphytes presents a post on swamp ghosts. The inspiration for this post is a fascinating and very well-written article by John Darnton, published in the October 2007 issue of the Smithsonian magazine. Read the full article here.

Papua New Guinea is a true lost world. Virtually unexplored even into the 21st century, its hot lowlands hum with lush jungle and its mountains are covered with moist cloud forest where birds of paradise flit between the shadows. Papua New Guinea is the kind of place that makes any orchid lover's heart beat that much faster. Certain areas are so remote that several new species of orchids can still be collected there on a single field trip. It has the largest concentration of unique species of Dendrobium orchid anywhere in the world, from minute gems that can only be appreciated through a magnifying glass, to reedy giants several metres tall. The people of Papua New Guinea speak over 800 different languages, making it the linguistically most diverse country in the world. Many still live in the tribal way, close to nature and the ancestors. Until recently, shells and dog teeth were legal currency. Until recently, the phrase having a friend for dinner had an entirely different meaning. And until recently, the Agaiambo swamp held a ghostly secret...


On the 23rd of February 1942, in the midst of World War II, an American Boeing B-17 on a bombing mission against the Japanese made a perfect emergency landing in the middle of an ocean of kunai grass swampland. Kunai grass (Imperata cylindrica) bears sharp needles of calcium oxalate crystal on the edges of every leaf blade and is unusual for being flammable even while green. Cut-up and delirious with malaria, the airmen finally arrived at Port Moresby after an arduous thirty-six day trek. However, the remarkable part of the story is not the journey of the airmen, but the plane they left behind in the swamp. Not only was it left behind, but it was remarkably well preserved, even after decades of lying in eight feet of water under boiling tropical skies. It was only rediscovered in 1972 during an RAAF helicopter exercise, thirty years after the crash. Macabre. Christened the Swamp Ghost, several explorers and historians have become so infatuated with the derelict that regular fly-overs and hiking expeditions to the site of the wreck have been organized. There's even a website dedicated to its legacy. One explorer's obsession with the Swamp Ghost finally got the better of him, however. By May of 2006 Alfred Hagen, an aviator from Bucks County Pennsylvania, had paid $100,000 for an export permit from New Guinea's National Museum and Art Gallery and salvaged the plane from its swampy grave of sixty years. Apparently, it would make a great display in some Aeronautical Museum...


There is one other ghost of the swamps that I'd like to share with you. In the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in the Florida Everglades, hidden amongst the bald cypress trees, protected by alligators and CITES legislature, lives a ghost with three names. Sometimes known as Dendrophylax lindenii, sometimes as Polyrrhiza lindenii, or sometimes as Polyradicion lindenii, it is commonly referred to as the ghost orchid. This phantom flower is a rare apparition indeed. It is an epiphyte like most tropical orchids, preferring to grow on other plants rather than skulk about in the shadows. But what distinguishes it from our normal concept of what an orchid looks like is the fact that it does not have any leaves. Whatsoever. The plant consists solely of a network of green roots which have taken over the task of photosynthesis. Glistening white flowers, strangely frog-like in appearance, are produced in late summer to tempt the giant sphinx moth. This is the only insect with a proboscis of sufficient length to get to the bottom of the orchid's nectar-filled spur. This summer, a gigantic specimen of the orchid with a huge mass of tanlged roots was discovered 45 feet up a bald cypress tree in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The orchid is estimated to be about 50 years old. Ghost orchids often manage to produce three or more flowers during a summer flowering season. Since its accidental discovery on the 7th of July (by hikers searching for an owl, no less) this specific plant has produced a record 20 blossoms in two flushes of ten flowers lasting up to four weeks at a time. Such generous beauty makes the plant particulary vulnerable. The ghost orchid is in danger of disappearing altogether, like that WWII plane, due to the covetous intentions of over-zealous collectors. If you've read a book called The Orchid Thief, or seen a movie called Adaptation, then you'll know all about it. Many people have gone down the road to madness after meeting a ghost in the swamp...

Credit to NC Orchid for the beautiful photograph of Polyrrhiza lindenii. Visit his Flickr page for more amazing pictures.

15 comments:

Kristen Hovet said...

no no i loved your comment!!!! noooo!!!! i didn't mean it that way. and i wasn't referring to your comment in my last post. it was what others were saying via emails. i viewed your comment in light of the other emails i was getting, so i just wasn't sure... but i love your comments!!!! please keep it up. :) xo

arcadia said...

love hierdie post. die ghost orchid is 'n fascinating ding...wat is die prys van so ding op die orgidee-swartmark?

missy said...

Whilst reading this post, I was thinking, I have seen a movie or a tv show about this. Thanks for mentioning at the end! I grew up in the tropics and it is quite normal for people to grow orchids in their garden that I take for granted how delicately beautiful they are..

gm said...

Ek is terug, ja.

Random en moontlik dom vraag: kan die ghost orchid gekweek word, of kom dit slegs in die natuur voor?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

The ghost orchid is available now from many orchid nurseries. Oak Hill Gardens in Illinois sells them at $12.50 for a mounted seedling. It is only through commercial cultivation of these rare beauties that pressure from collecting is taken off the wild populations.

It's still hideously difficult to grow it well, though. They like being mounted on wire baskets, need very pure water, lots of heat and humidity and some luck in order to thrive. There's a good discussion on the topic in a forum at The Orchid Source, with some cool pictures!

wreckless said...

I should wow you with this info: Years ago I found a bioilluminescent mushroom in the woods at night. I was so intrigued. I got in touch with the North American Mycological Society. They identified it as penelus stipticus (sp?). It was greenish.

Adam said...

Daai spook is ongelooflik mooi! Die tweede ene...

mike said...

Wow, it's beautiful! Amazing what these random and seemlingly boring jungles can produce :P

jason evans said...

Thanks for the insights into these living ghosts.

Twanji Kalula said...

Will you be heading to Papua New Guinea soon then?

SleekPelt said...

Awesome post, TEOH. I think I will be learning much more about orchids on this blog than I ever expected to know.

Kristen Hovet said...

gorgeous orchid photo, by the way! how many orchids do you own?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

wreckless: Panellus stipticus is one of the best examples of forest bioluminescence. Imagine how cool it would be to have it growing on trees in your garden!

mike: I hope I've shown you that jungles are not boring. Hmm. Maybe I should do a post on tropical diseases next.

twanji: I'd love to, but I need an experienced guide. With a gun.

adam, jason, sleekpelt, kristen: thanks for sharing in my obsessions! I own about 300 orchids, and I miss them dearly. The Parental Units are taking good care of them in my absence, and apparently building a giant greenhouse to house them all!

Karen Little said...

I really enjoyed this post!

Last week we went to Hogsback there in the Amatholes - we had a look at Applegarth which is a temperate climate garden started by Mary Wilson (of Wilson Sweets fame) about 60 years ago. It was so beautiful! I really wished you were there - there were gazillions of plants. I wanted to buy a maple tree to take home but there wasn't space in the car.... maybe next time.

I wish I hadn't reead the Orched Thief yet... It was such a good book.

Ok, later alligator

singleton said...

I've gotten interupted everytime I've tried to finish the post, haunted by the ghost orchids, I'm afraid, but wow! How cool is all of this? I've never tried to grow an orchid in my life, but am amazed at the beauty of those carefully strung from trees in south florida, their little mesh baskets blowing in the breeze like windchimes.....
I do have ghost plants in the garden though, their succulants, but eerily beautiful!
peace my friend, this is awesome!