The ghost orchid, prized for its long and delicate, pure-white petals is an enduring symbol of South Florida forests. Like many ornamental plants, however, this orchid has become rare and endangered due to poaching or over-collecting. A recent study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) reveals new ways biologists can save the iconic flowers. 

"We've successfully developed procedures to culture plants from seeds in the lab and then successfully acclimatize them into our greenhouse," Michael Kane, professor of environmental horticulture at UF/IFAS, said in a news release. "We've also obtained a high survival and vigorous re-growth rate when they're planted back into the wild."

Researchers have begun stepping up conservation efforts, as recent reports indicate there are only an estimated 2,000 ghost orchids remaining in Florida.

These rare flowers have many unique characteristics: First off, its name pays tribute to its eerie tendency to move at night, when it is generally pollinated by the sphinx moth. It is also leafless, and its roots attach to the bark of the host tree.

For the past three years, researchers have been working toward increasing the survival chances for lab-grown seeds they're planted in their native environment. To do this, they collected ghost orchid seeds from southwest Florida, germinated them under sterile conditions on a gelled medium, and then transfer the plants into a greenhouse.

"Orchid seeds in the wild won't germinate unless they are infected with a mycorrhizal fungus," Kane explained.

Aside from the sphinx moth, however, the flower's nectar is not easily reached by many insects. And to make matters worse, the ghost orchid does not flower reliably.

Using their innovative technique, however, researchers were able to successfully culture seeds. They even recently brought some of the plants back to their native habitat in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Collier County, Florida. About 70 out of the 80 orchids planted have survived and are vigorously growing. Similar success has also been observed in cultured seeds planted at the Naples Botanical Garden.

"For orchid conservation, this is big," Kane concluded in the university's release. "We are very excited."

Their study is currently being considered for publication. However, its success has not gone unrecognized: Doctoral student Hoang Nguyen -- working under the direction of Kane -- won the outstanding research poster contest at last June's meeting of the Society for In Vitro Biology.

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