By Danielle Green, Director of Gardens and Grounds
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens has been involved in plant conservation for many years, but began to focus on species in South Florida a few years ago. Partnering with Atlanta Botanical Garden, the horticulture department has assisted with monitoring populations of Cigar Orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum) in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve annually since 2013.
In 2016, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens joined Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Soroa Orchid Botanical Gardens, Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment - Republic of Cuba and Atlanta Botanical Garden to strengthen our relationship with the Cuban government in working towards the common goal of conserving rare orchids in Florida and Cuba. The species of focus for this trip were four endangered orchids - Spider Orchid (Brassia caudata), Rat Tail Orchid (Bulbophyllum pachyrrachis - pictured to the left), Acuna’s Star Orchid (Epidendrum acunae), and Trinidad Macradenia (Macradenia lutescens).
Populations of these species in South Florida were decimated by hurricanes, urban development, and unchecked illegal poaching of plants until all populations of the four species were declared extirpated (locally extinct) by Florida Natural Areas Inventory by the 1980s.
It was observed that these species were facing the same threats in Cuba that caused their extirpation in Florida, so we decided to work with Cuba to better understand their conservation status in situ (in-habitat) and build capacity for their ex situ (outside of habitat) conservation efforts to prevent further extirpations.
In December 2018, I traveled to Cuba with Atlanta Botanical Garden staff and Jacksonville Zoo staff to locate and document the status of known populations of these orchids, deliver needed supplies, and consult with Cuban biologists on next steps for the project. We spent three days in the field at Cienaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp National Park) located in the south central part of the island. This protected area of Cuba is nearly identical to the habitat found in Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress Preserve!
We located over forty new plants of Rat Tail Orchid previously undocumented and a white flowering form of Pine Pink (Bletia pupurea) ground orchid not observedin this area before! We also observed many beautiful Cuban bird species, including the world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird (see photo below)!
Day four we traveled to Pinar del Rio region to the next site along Rio Taco Taco, where we hiked twelve miles round trip through amazing topography and landscape (see photo below). We collected data on all four orchid species and a number of other orchids previously not documented.
Our last official business was visiting Soroa Orchid Botanical Garden to tour the micropropagation lab where many Cuban orchid species are propagated and displayed. The Garden is part of the University of Pinar del Río and the national and Caribbean networks of Botanic Gardens. Soroa Orchid Botanical Garden has one of the main libraries specialized in orchids on the island for the preservation and enjoyment of nature and the conservation of Cuban orchids.
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is proud to be part of this project and plans to display the four orchid species in our garden in the near future to highlight the conservation partnership and efforts to save rare plants in Florida.
Group photo of Green and staff from Jacksonville Zoo and Atlanta Botanical Garden.