PARK WEST PAPER
On January 24, 1848, a 38-year-old carpenter and sawmill operator was distracted from his work by something glittering in the waterbed below the mill he was constructing for his employer. James W. Marshall leaped from his work to examine the incandescent objects. The flakes of gold found in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains would soon incite the American Gold Rush. This day would forever impact American history, and indeed, its land, which would forever be changed by the scavenging that ensued.
Human lust for the earth’s natural resources, often inciting crazed and warmongering behavior, has a long and complex history. But the common thread seems to be that humans are not good at moderation—even in the case of so delicate and ephemeral a prize as the orchid.
This beautiful and exotic flower, originating in tropical climates, was first commoditized by Victorian England in the late 1800s when railroads opened up a thoroughfare between the rest of the world and South Florida’s swampy landmass. The very wealthy, transfixed by the orchid’s dramatic splendor and its powerful, diverse perfumery, sought after the fashionable plant with such fever that the craze became known as “orchidelirium.”
Cultivation expeditions for orchids proliferated, the price for the plants soared and the Orchid Rush was in full swing. Soon many native species that once dripped bountifully from trees and bushes were near extinction.
The road to rehabilitate the native orchid population has been a long and arduous affair, as passionate individuals have fostered efforts to preserve orchid habitats, develop procedures for propagating orchids in the lab, greenhouse, and garden—and, most importantly, to educate.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” says Casey Zap of his journey to orchid-dom. Now a local horticulturist and owner of the Center for Subtropical Affairs, a Little Haiti-based nursery and educational space, Zap was originally in the food and beverage business, before he stumbled into the world of native plants.
“I was opening up a bar called Baby’s All Right in New York when I realized this really wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
Heading to Miami, with the intention of staying but with no real plan, Zap leased an apartment as he wrapped up his business and walked away from his life in Brooklyn. One day, he threw a rotting papaya into his backyard, and, to his landlord’s dismay, that rotting papaya grew. Zap soon became obsessed with fruit trees: “It was a domino effect. It had never been a part of my world, living in New York, and it blew up from there.”
Zap embarked on a journey into native Florida horticulture that resulted, ultimately, in the opening of the Center for Subtropical Affairs. On the rubble of three derelict buildings, Zap built an ecological learning center in the Little River development, that not only focuses on cultivating Florida’s native plants, but also provides jobs and training within the community.
His sights expanded to encompass composting, fungi—and finally orchids. Their characteristics—fickle, yet robust—make them a satisfying endeavor for any plant enthusiast.
“I met Dr. Jason Downing in the Design District when he started the One Million Orchids Project,” says Zap, as he recalls his first foray into the world of orchids. “He is the guy that started working with endangered orchids. His project is insane. He shot for the moon and everyone said his lab technique wouldn’t work, but it did.”
Downing’s crazily ambitious plan was to create an open-air lab in the center of the city, working with students and volunteers to plant one million orchids. To propagate an orchid, conditions must be completely sterile. So, not surprisingly, Downing’s plan to outsource efforts to local public high schools and volunteers was greeted with some skepticism by his peers. These days, though, his project boasts approximately 200,000 orchids, which, to put it in perspective, Downing’s previous restoration project took five years to put 2,000 endangered orchids out.
Zap began to study under Downing, working primarily with the fungus that is symbiotic with orchids—a necessary part of the process, as the orchid seed is so small, it doesn’t contain any food for the plant to germinate. Unlike with coconut, for example, where the plant eats its own food supply, orchid seeds are dust that is germinated by fungus. Zap and Downing’s working relationship blossomed when Zap opened up a fungus lab on the grounds of the center, and the two married their common interest.
Projects like Zap’s, and especially Dr. Downing’s, don’t just happen overnight. Downing’s plan is ambitious at every level. Not only do issues of funding come into play, but the scope of the project is lengthy. Native endangered orchids need to germinate for approximately two years before they are ready to be replanted. Grown in successive media, conditions for germination must be completely sterile and contained, and while the process isn’t necessarily expensive, it is incredibly time-consuming.
Time-consuming, might be an understatement for the involved nature of Downing’s work. These days, not only does Downing head up the one million orchid project, but he also is the head of Orchid Biology at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
And like the elusive native flowers he parents, Dr. Downing was hard to track down.
I finally got hold of Andy Gallagher, who works with Dr. Downing at Fairchild Botanical Garden. Gallagher met me at the gate of staff entrance and drove me around Fairchild’s lowland’s for two hours before we finally made it back to headquarters to wait for Dr. Downing to finish a meeting. His staff, many of whom I met as was taken around the grounds, all spoke about him with an almost deferential admiration, reinforcing my excitement at speaking with the expert.
Dr. Downing appeared on a golf cart, hopping off and briskly walking into the lab, his converse leaving dust billowing from the gravel that surrounded us. “What’s up” he exclaimed, casually, immediately embarking on his origin story.
Dr. Downing’s love of botany was late to bloom. An avid sportsman throughout high school, and a music major in college, it wasn’t until Dr. Downing was inspired by a professor that he entered the world of biology. A PhD in botany later, Downing now leads several research projects at Fairchild, including but not limited to the One Million Orchids Project. Ironically, his hometown in Kansas is the unlikely home of some of the rarest North American species of the plant.
“I had no idea I would be doing this at all. When I was at the University of Kansas, I had a teacher that took us jocks out to the woods, and it was the first time I realized there were jobs in science outside of a hospital. Us inner city, minority kids are generally not exposed to that kind of stuff.”
The One Million Orchid Project is an antidote to this problem in Florida. As well as reviving native species of orchid, the project provides exposure and experience to any student, or any person of any age, who wants to participate in authentic research in conservation. The project originated in Singapore, it’s national orchid garden historically having close ties with Fairchild. Dr. Downing traveled there as a precursor to building Fairchild’s own orchid propagation laboratory, the micropropagation lab that he now spends most of his time. His strategy, however, differed from his contemporaries.
“We outsource help and educate people with every aspect of the project. From collecting the seeds to banking them in cryogenics, sending them to seed banks, identifying the fungi that they are using in the wild, all the way to planting them in their classrooms, collecting data and tracking them long term, people can be involved in the whole restoration project. There’s really no other project in the world that does that.”
Almost exclusively focusing on the urban matrix, planting the orchids in public spaces around the Miami area, the project directly confronts the issue that originally saw the plant’s demise.
“Traditionally restoration takes place in hard to reach places, for obvious reasons,” he explains. “But this is a modern twist on conservation. We are planting where people work and live. When you outsource the science, you can accomplish huge goals. If we educate and enlist the help of the community and the public, we can reverse what’s been done.”
While all orchid species are not endangered, they are now protected. Orchids have long been exploited for their beauty and cultural significance. While the Chinese cultivate the orchid primarily to use its stem and roots for teas and traditional medicines, in the west, it is the beauty of the flower that is most prized. The problem, however, remains the same. Ripped out of nature, the species have struggled to survive with the greed of man pursuing it.
The journey to the education of the masses, and indeed, one million orchids will be a long one. But as Downing says: “It is very worthwhile.”
Written by: Olivia McAuley