Orchid Rescue — epiphytic Green-fly orchid in bloom in my front yard — 2017-07-11

This is not the first time I have rescued an orchid from its pending doom, but this time, it seems to have worked out quite well, so far. Sort of a win-win… Later on in this blog report, I will mention the first time I rescued a specimen of this species, but for now, let’s stick to the present. In late October of last year (2016) Walter Ezell and I were down in the Francis Marion National Forest checking out the Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids in the Wambaw Swamp. We finished up with a very successful day, but since we were already down there, I wanted to check out the Epidendrum magnoliae or Green-fly orchids in a church yard about 30 miles east of our current location.

This particular orchid species is the only native epiphytic orchid in the Carolinas. Epiphytic means that it grows on trees (and rarely on rocks in some areas) and tree branches. It, however, is not a parasite, but uses the tree bark as an attachment so that it can capture rain water and nutrients from the air. The second part of the botanical name seems to indicate that it grows on Magnolia grandiflora or Southern Magnolia trees, and it does, but locally, it prefers to grow on the large horizontal limbs of Quercus virginiana or Southern Live Oak. These trees can grow to be very old, in fact, not far away is the Angel Oak, which is thought to be over 400 years old. Those trees in the church yard have to be a couple of hundred years old — they are huge!

We packed our gear and drove to the old brick church (built in 1768) and parked the truck outside the gate. As soon as I entered the church yard, I was struck by the number of large oak limbs littering the ground. Apparently, a huge storm had caused several large limbs to break and fall, just missing the portico and some of the grave stones in the church yard cemetery. A few of the limbs had already been sawed into manageable logs. I quickly noticed that quite a few of the logs had been host to large groups of the Green-fly orchid as well as its constant companion, Pleopeltis polypodioides or Resurrection fern. It is called Resurrection fern, because during drier seasons, it withers and turns brown, only to “resurrect” and turn green during the next rainy period. Here is a neat YouTube video showing a time-lapse of this process.

Note: All of the logs are long gone, so don’t expect to go there and find more orchids on the ground. The remainder of the orchid plants are in the trees, about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 meters) off the ground. Never remove living orchids from their natural environment. The only reason I took the limb, which was home to the one group I found, was that it was destined to be used as fire wood.

I didn’t want to see these orchids burned in some fire pit, so I “rescued” one of the smaller logs which had a relatively large group of plants growing on the tree bark. Here is an image of me and the limb on my way back to the truck:

Jim with the rescued oak log Jim with the rescued oak log

Who knows why I seem to have a scowl, but I do know that it was very sunny and sweaty hot, and the mosquitoes were ferocious that day. I’ll use that as an excuse… Here is another shot of the church yard and some of the large Southern Live Oak trees:

St. James Santee church

If you look closely on the following shot, you will be able to see clumps of green plants on the large, horizontal limbs. These are the orchid plants and the fern plants, growing sympatrically.

Southern Live Oak trees in the church yard

I brought the log with its orchid group home and placed it behind my house in the shade. In its natural environment, it is shaded during the day, and receives only dappled sunlight. During our winter, we had quite a few nights of freezing temperatures as well as a couple of nights of 10° F (-12° C). As Spring began to make itself known, I remembered the log behind the house. When I checked it out, it was very sad looking — the orchid leaves were dark reddish-brown, and I had little hope that it survived the winter. Hoping I was wrong, I brought the log and its sad orchid plants into the front yard and placed it under the limbs of an old camellia shrub.

Again, I ignored it and didn’t check on it until sometime in May. At that point, the leaves were greening up a bit, and I noticed that there were a few new shoots here and there on the log. Sometime around mid-June, I noticed about a dozen flower spikes protruding from the new growth. I couldn’t believe we were going to have flowers from this plant I thought was dead:

Epidendrum magnoliae flower spikes

Epidendrum magnoliae flower spike

As the days progressed, I made sure the log was not allowed to dry out — I poured rain water which I collected in rain barrels all over the plants and log.

On July 1, I found the first open flowers. Believe it or not, this is the same bloom time I would have expected at the church yard site:

Epidendrum magnoliae flowers

Epidendrum magnoliae flower close-up

The flowers are barely 1/2 inches (12 mm) wide, and do not have a fragrance except at night, when the strong, sweet fragrance is apparent from quite a distance. At this writing, I do not know what is the natural pollinator of this orchid species, but if I were to guess, it would be a night-flying moth.

It is now July 11, and I have just taken the final images of this plant at its peak flowering. Here are a few of those images:

Epidendrum magnoliae flowers

Epidendrum magnoliae flowers

Epidendrum magnoliae flowers

As I mentioned earlier, this was not my first rescue of this orchid species. Because it is an epiphyte and lives on trees and tree limbs, it is susceptible to losing its perch due to wind storms. In October, 2005, a botany friend who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, told me about a swampy area in the coastal plain where there was a tree fall. The old Nyssa biflora or Swamp Tupelo had fallen in a summer hurricane. On its trunk and on a few of its branches, were a number of small groups of Epidendrum magnoliae. My friend made arrangements for us to visit the private property, and here is what I saw upon entering the swamp:

Fallen Swamp Tupelo in the swamp

It’s difficult to see, I know, but about halfway along the tree trunk, there is a small green clump — that is the orchid. There is a larger clump just on the other side of the tree. Here is a shot of the clump which was now on top of the fallen tree trunk:

Epidendrum magnoliae plants on fallen tree

The following image shows the typical, intimate association of Epidendrum magnoliae and the Resurrection fern:

Epidendrum magnoliae and its intimate association with Resurrection fern

I had brought a small hatchet and a prying bar along with me to help remove the plants for replanting nearby. Here is one of the larger clumps of orchid plants I managed to rescue. The orchid plants were still attached to the tree bark:

Orchid plants still attached to the tree bark

I continued to remove as many plants as I could before I had to leave. After getting a bucket full, I attached a couple of dozen small groups to smaller, living Swamp Tupelo trees that were nearby. I used wire and specialized nails to make sure they wouldn’t become detached before they could grow new roots. Sorry I don’t have pictures from this part of the rescue, but I just didn’t think to make pictures of this process. I also took a few specimens to another site in the Francis Marion National Forest, about an hour away, and attached them about chest high to some small Taxodium distichum or Bald Cypress trees in an area where I felt they would be safe.

In early July of 2007, (about 20 months later) I managed to make it back to the swamp site to see if any of the plants had survived. I was thrilled to see that not only had they survived, but they were in full bloom! Here are some shots of the result:

Rescued orchids in full bloom

Rescued orchids in full bloom

Rescued orchids in full bloom

Even the plants I had wired to the small Bald Cypress trees were in bloom! :

Rescued orchids on Bald Cypress tree

Rescued orchids on Bald Cypress tree

Rescued orchids on Bald Cypress tree

Success, right? But all is not well. The next year, 2008, I was unable to make it back to the swamp — I no longer had permission to enter the private site, but I did make it back to the Bald Cypress site. What I found was the result of a prescribed, winter burn. While I thought that the plants on the Bald Cypress were high enough to escape the flames, I was sorely wrong. They had been burned to a literal crisp! I don’t have pictures of them, but if I did, it would just look like burned lumps on the tree trunk. Lesson learned…

While I would dearly love to revisit the swamp location, I no longer have the contact to gain access. I can easily believe that the orchids are doing quite well. The trees that I used to transplant the orchids were young and in little or no danger of being blown over. In addition, there was no danger of fire, since I was standing in about a foot (30 cm) of water when I transplanted them.

It’s fun to relive that orchid rescue. I’m sure many of you, dear readers, have done the same at one time or another, and I hope you have had great results. Maybe I will be able to return to the swamp site in the near future. If I do, I will be sure to record what I see — good or bad, but I’m thinking it will be good…

–Jim

7 comments


  • Great story and adventure Jim!

    July 11, 2017
  • Lucy

    Wonderful story Jim! How wonderful you saved some of those beautiful little orchids!

    July 11, 2017
  • Chuck Ramsey

    As always, wonderful photos and a great story. Three years in the Charleston area and I didn’t realize we had epiphytic orchids nearby…

    July 12, 2017
  • Marcia C Whitmore

    What a wonderful rescue!….gorgeous little plants and well worth saving native orchids.

    July 12, 2017
  • Tony Willis

    Wonderful success,lovely to see

    July 12, 2017
  • Scott

    Great story. The swamp part of the story makes me think snakes and how many have been watching as you pass on your many trips. May they always just be watching.

    July 12, 2017
  • edward

    I used to visit this site yrs ago; the building looks a lot better than it did 20 yrs ago which is good to know. From an architectural perspective, it is an amazing place. I never noticed the orchid sad to say. Not too far away, at the Coastal Reserve, there is a boardwalk winding through a cypress swamp where I suspect this might also be found. The biting insects there are murderous however.

    July 30, 2017

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