Most Southwest Floridians do not know about one of America's premier reserves right here in our own backyard, the Fahkahatchee Strand. We are very fortunate that our government had the foresight to preserve this natural paradise from further destruction. It was not too many years ago when loggers looking for the virgin bald cypress, nearly decimated this swamp. They dug canals and using the removed earth created hundreds of trams. On these trams railroad cars would move the cut trees. These trams now make it possible to explore this regrown wilderness. Our guide, Mike Owen, repeatedly reminded us that the only reason that the plants that are there today remain, is that surface water is retained over much of the year. This provides the high humidity necessary for the continued propagation and growth of orchids, Bromeliads and tropical plants. The Fahkahatchee Strand is 84,000 acres of swamp made up of multiple sloughs and ponds. Located about 30 miles east of Naples, Florida, it is accessible off of Alligator Alley on Highway 29. The Fahkahatchee Strand is a long trough cut into the limestone, through which water runs slowly north to south, finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico in the Ten Thousand Islands area. Since the cessation of logging of this area, few of the larger cypress trees remain. However, along the trams exist the only living stand of native American Royal Palms.
This unique environment is home to numerous native Florida orchids. Although I am not versed in the various Florida orchids, some of the orchids which can be found here include Epidendrum nocturnum, Encyclia cochleatum, Ionopsis and the cigar orchid, Crytopodium punctatum. We were lucky enough to find a plant of the "ghost" orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii, although not in bloom. This orchid has obtained notoriety recently in the book "The Orchid Thief". It was from the Fahkahatchee Strand that these orchids were removed for illegal sale. This orchid has an extensive root system and since there are no leaves on this plant, roots contain chlorophyll necessary for its growth. A semi transparent white flower, giving it its name 'Ghost Orchid', about 1 1/2 inches across with too long projections from the lip, develops from the roots. Since the plant consist of roots most of the year, and since the roots are securely attached to the bark of branches and the trunk, the only way to procure one of these orchids is to remove that portion of the tree on which the plant grows.
The specific interest of the 17 members of the CBS on this tour, was mainly the native Bromeliads. Most of the native Florida Bromeliads can be found in the Fahkahatchee Strand. During our five hour walk we encountered hundreds of Guzmania monostachia, Tillandsia fasciculata, Tillandsia balbisiana, Tillandsia setacea, Tillandsia recurvata, Tillandsia variabilis, formally Tillandsia valenzuela, and Tillandsia usneoides. Although less frequent but still identified on our trip were Catopsis floribunda, Tillandsia flexuosa, Tillandsia pruinosa and Tillandsia x smalliana, formally Tillandsia polystachia. Present in the Fahkahatchee Strand but not found on this visit are Catopsis berteroniana, which normally grows near the tops of trees, Catopsis nutans, which may only be endemic to the Fahkahatchee Strand, Tillandsia bartramii, formally Tillandsia juncea and Tillandsia paucifolia, formally Tillandsia circinnata.
Were we lucky enough to find Guzmania monostachia 'Variegata'? No! I went back and looked at articles written about the Fahkahatchee Strand and the discovery of the variegated Guzmania monostachia. Reportedly this mutation has developed in limited hammocks. We found several hammocks where thousands of the normal Guzmania monostachia grew but none of the variegated form. The trees were covered with mature plants and numerous seedlings; at this time of the year the blooms were spent and sending out millions of their airborne seeds. My readings noted that Dennis Cathcart on his numerous treks to the Strand has found the variegated Guzmania. The following is a reprint of Dennis's discovery.
|"This Guzmania is found in the southern most swamps of the Florida Everglades, in the deep water hammocks. The plants are growing everywhere on the trees except the last two feet of the trunk...most of this area is underwater for nearly half the year. This section of the Everglades is the most conducive to the growth of these Guzmanias...the plant is extremely plentiful where it is found, and not in existence outside its favorite habitat. This particular hammock is the habitat of the variegated Guzmania monostachia, which is known only in this one hammock. It's the only place in the world were this variegated Guzmania is found, and the incidence of varigated ones... well, it's impossible to say because there are millions and millions of plants...but the incidence of varigated plants is very low."||
If you look closely at this photo,
taken by Dennis Cathcart,
of the late Wally Berg and the
late Dr. Werner Rauh, you will
see that they are holding the
elusive variegated Guzmania monostachia
Our trip was made more enjoyable by the lack of mosquitoes, finding several alligators (one of which posed for our cameras from a distance of only a few feet), and numerous birds including a nest of Anhinga chicks.
Although not for everyone, I recommend that Bromeliad lovers who feel they can walk several miles should take advantage of the proximity of the Fahkahatchee Strand and see our native Florida Bromeliads up close while enjoying the many other natural treasures of the Everglades.