Orchids. Just the very word brings to mind a vision of exotic color, delightful texture and fantastic shapes, and the scent of consummate and delicious fragrances. Often it evokes feelings of peaceful reflection, caring, and a love for nature’s most wondrous flowers. Orchids are often thought about in the most serene, zen-like way – absolute perfection in nature. We think of beautiful flower arrangements, corsages, and the famous lei that a Hawaiian visitor is famously greeted with.
I’ve spent a massive amount of time in the past seven years photographing the wild native orchids of Florida. This includes hours of pouring over maps, old botanical surveys, journals and publications outside of visiting all the nooks and crannies of Florida to find them growing in the wild. As a masculine, outdoor type of guy – one of the funniest reactions I get from other people when asked what I like to do is when I say I hunt down and photograph orchids. Everyone from football jersey-clad men to bent old women give me that sudden double-take/split-second reevaluation. Suddenly I go from a regular dude to …. is he …. you know – like that? Real men don’t play around with orchids – real men watch other men play sports!
Cigar Orchid (Cyrtopodium punctatum)
There is a rich and colorful history of professional globe-spanning orchid hunters risking life and limb for enormous sums of fame and fortune during the 19th century’s “orchid mania” – the fad that evolved into today’s orchid culture. Historically, the search for and acquisition of orchids has been one of the most manly of feats. Many of these explorers simply vanished in tropical rain forests – possibly due to hostile natives, headhunters, disease, wild animals, complications due to injury, or just succumbed to exposure and the elements. The more rare and unobtainable the orchid – the more people were willing to pay for it. In no time there were entire world-wide expeditions underway to obtain these unusual flowers – at all and any cost. Too often this meant at the ultimate cost – in both wealth and life.
Many of the native orchids in my home state of Florida grow in the most inhospitable, remote, and often dangerous locations in North America. The best place for this is the Florida Everglades. When looking for orchids to photograph, one must be wary of venomous snakes, hordes of vicious mosquitoes, heat exposure, the ever-present alligators, dehydration, followed up by all the unexpected encounters that are the result of escaped imported animals. I’ve run into South American caimans (a kind of crocodile) in these remote swamps. Escaped Burmese pythons are breeding and thriving in these vast wetlands. Did I mention that there is very little dry land? Most travel is done by wading in knee to chest-deep water for miles. If trouble is encountered…. there is no cell phone service.
Fakahatchee Beaked Orchids (Sacoila lanceolata paludicola)
I nearly always visit these remote locations alone because most people either can’t keep up, or they get too spooked. I understand that and I’m fine with it, and I actually prefer the solitude. The lack of distraction is what helps me get the images that I’m after. I’ve had several nail-biting experiences in my countless forays into the Everglades, but one of them really stands out. My most unforgettable experience with orchid hunting was one day just before Christmas in 2007 when I set all alone out in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Southwest Florida. I’d waded about three or four miles from my car where I was doing my systematic search of depressions and lakes found with the then-new Google Earth for potential places for rare orchids. It was a rather warm winter day in the southeastern area of the Preserve that is the least visited and most wild. You can instantly tell when you go out of range of the orchid poachers…. they are suddenly everywhere.
Clamshell Orchid (Prosthechea cochleata var. triandra)
This particular early morning at first light, I was squeezing my way through an area of young bald cypress trees when I saw a beautiful wall of lush green trees ahead of me. As the trees got older, taller, and more dense, I knew I was walking into a good slough, or depression. The water went from knee-deep to chest-deep as everything got much darker. Many people might call this spooky – the photographer in me was seeing all kinds of cool natural lighting possibilities! I skirted around to the southern side of the big pond in the middle, stepping carefully to avoid submerged logs, cypress knees, and snapping turtles. The water started to get a little more shallow here – waist-deep – and there was some gorgeous filtered light through the overhead canopy. I followed this path for a while and the terrain started to change a bit. In the swamps of Florida, this is most noticeable by the types of trees. Soon I was out of the cypress trees and into the pond apples – a kind of sub-tropical wetland tree that produces a hard softball-sized green fruit that is much prized by the scrawny bears that can occasionally be found in the Everglades. If you want to find orchids in the Everglades – pond apple trees are the best place to look. Tree-growing orchids are epiphytic, not to be confused with parasitic. The orchid does not harm the tree or feed from it, but rather anchors itself to the bark with grasping roots and uses it for support – gathering the necessary nutrients from the air and rain. Certain trees tend to be better hosts for particular orchids, and pond apples are excellent hosts.
In a few minutes of getting into the pond apples – I suddenly stepped into a paradise that could almost be called a fantasy. The waist-deep water took on a shimmering green effect. The twisted black trunks on the old pond apples trees braced themselves to hold the nearly parallel heavy limbs about four feet over the water. On these limbs were the most inconceivable thick masses of blooming orchids I’ve ever seen. The trees were literally dripping with orchids – and several species. I’ve seen many tens of thousands of orchids in the wild, but never anything like this. The word gorgeous didn’t even begin to describe the sheer beauty of this sudden panorama. The flowers were like glittering stars in a shimmering green glow reflected in the clear, cool waist-deep water below. The blackened, gnarled limbs of the trees were the perfect backdrop in contrast to the pure glory of what lay before me. All of this enveloped in the softest, and most gentle diffused light – filtered by the foliage from above. Perfect. Serene. Sublime. Transfixed, I moved into the open to get into position to start shooting.
Night-Fragrant Epidendrum (Epidendrum nocturnum)
In all of us, there is a primitive part of the brain that involuntarily uses the senses to keep us alert to our surroundings, whether we are aware of it or not. For many people accustomed to the outdoors – especially places where there is a lot of wildlife, we notice tiny movements before they ever can be translated into information which can be analyzed by the brain. A bird’s flick of the tail can draw the eye faster than one realizes the presence of the bird. A green leaf falling in the swamp water will cause the eyes to shift upward to find the source of the disturbance – without making the connection that something must have caused the leaf to fall, and that gravity tells us that it must have originated from above where it fell. These things happen instantaneously. It is part of the instinct that predators often rely on to find prey, and that prey use to warn themselves of danger. As I was raising the camera to my face to compose my first image of the hanging orchids, I perceived movement at the edge of my field of vision.
About thirty feet away from me, in the same deep pool where I was standing, a slate gray snout appeared from behind a large old cypress tree, slowly followed by the rest of the alligator’s head. In less than a moment, the whole back was visible as it silently drifted parallel to me and stopped – just watching me.
I am very accustomed to seeing alligators in the water with me, and have a good understanding of alligator behavior and their habits. Alligators are one of the most predictable animals on the planet, and if you can read their movements, you know what to do in a situation like this. The general rule of thumb on size is to determine the distance in inches from the nostril to the eye of the alligator – and that will give you an approximate length in feet. An alligator with a six-inch eye-to-nose length will be a roughly a six-foot alligator. This particular alligator had a twelve to thirteen inch length from eye to nose, and the massively wide head was scarred with years of many battles. A very big one. Larger than nine or ten feet in length, alligators tend to become bulky and lose the “leanness” of most alligators encountered in the swamps. Generally when an alligator is disturbed it will submerge and wait until the intruder is gone, or gently swim away underwater to re-submerge at a safe distance and keep an eye on that intruder. This one was not behaving normally.
Wild Coco Orchid (Eulophia alta)
There was a perceptible aggressiveness in the way this alligator watched me, and remained where it was. For those who know me, they will all attest to the fact that I don’t spook easily. I tend to keep a level head in any dilemma, and I’ve always prided myself on keeping cool in the hairiest of situations. From the corners of my eyes, I began to quickly assess the situation. I was waist-deep in the dark, clear water. About five feet behind me was a twenty-foot high wall of greenbriar vines of a diabolical variety that when found in the Everglades are hellaciously strong and armed with long, dagger-like thorns. Beyond that there was a rise with dry land. To the left and to the right was open water. I was pinned, and that was the situation. I screwed up by letting myself wade too far from protective cover, and had left myself vulnerable. I had a heavy camera backpack not easily removed as I keep the straps tight. I had a heavy camera dangling around my neck, just above the surface of the water, and I had my thick cypress pole in my hand. I’m sure I was sending out waves a fear as perceptible as those of a cornered rabbit to a panther. Worried that if I stood in place for more than a few moments, my boots would begin to sink too deep into the mud and I would get stuck, I began to slowly back up to the wall of thorns. Suddenly the alligator turned to face me. Not good would be a gross underestimate of that immediate change of position. That was the worst thing that could have happened. The very worst.
I have the vaguest recollection of what happened next. That primitive reaction that is built into all of us suddenly took over the person I am. The alligator gave a sudden wave-like thrust of its tail and propelled toward me while submerging in the same motion. I literally exploded through those thorny vines and out of the water. I’ve no recollection of what exactly happened in the next moments, but I found myself stumbling through a thicket of young cypress trees as if in a drunken daze, feeling strangely very distressed and upset. Not because I narrowly escaped a most likely fatal attack, but from some sort of “hangover effect” from the receding adrenaline rush. I was bleeding from my scalp, face, hands, and arms. My t-shirt was ripped open and riddled with broken thorns. Backpack…. check – still on my back. Camera…..undamaged, but missing the lens cap. Cypress pole still clutched in a hand studded with embedded thorns.
Not even coming close to realizing how lucky I was, all I could think about was going home to my wife and infant son. That was truly the longest walk back to the car, and I literally had to walk around at least twenty big, fat and venomous cottonmouths (water moccasins) on the way – not having seen a single one on the way out that morning. Halfway to the car my disorientation began to wear off, and it started to dawn on me what happened. I never did get a shot of that beautiful “pond” or of the orchids I traveled so far to see that day, but I learned a very important lesson all of us nature photographers have to learn – usually more than once. Don’t ever get too comfortable in the wilderness. It leads to distraction, which leads to mistakes. You can’t make mistakes in the Everglades.
Water Moccasin (also known as the Cottonmouth)
On reflection, I think about those orchid hunters in the Victorian ages who visited strange and exotic continents in their search for these most alluring of tropical plants and can’t help but wonder at the sheer bravery and fortitude of these brazen hunters and then a thought struck me that brought a knowing smile to my lips. The word “orchid” itself is derived from the word, “orchis” – Greek for “testicles.” I’m sure that there is something that was lost in translation. I can’t help but think that they must have meant “balls”.Rich Leighton August 2, 2012 (reposted and re-edited from September 17, 2011) Find out more about the wild orchids of Florida and North America on my website or in my book, “Native Orchids of Florida” available at