2017 Conference: Ghosts and Gators
By Andrew Lyell, Senior Gardener, Los Angeles Zoo
The beautiful and unusual ghost orchid occurs naturally in swampy areas of Florida. Though it wasn’t in bloom for the conference, I did see pale ghost orchid roots gripping a tree trunk at the Naples Botanical Garden. Photo by Andrew Lyell
I’ve seen a ghost! No, not a spectral image from spooky tales, but a ghost orchid. This beautiful and unusual plant occurs naturally in swampy areas of Florida, which is where this year’s Association of Zoological Horticulture (AZH) conference took place.
It wasn’t in bloom at the time, but I did find its pale roots gripping a tree trunk at the Naples Botanical Garden, one of several wonderful sites we visited during the weeklong conference.
This year’s host was the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. The conference was originally scheduled for September, but due to storm damage from Hurricane Irma, it was postponed until December. By then, the roads were cleared, water drained, and all was safe for the attendees.
The conference program featured many presentations about successes and failures, both in zoos and natural areas. Topics ranged from disaster preparedness to how different types of equipment meet the diverse needs of parks. My Los Angeles Zoo colleague Sandy Masuo gave a very well received presentation about using succulents as ambassadors to engage guests with plants and help lead people to a better understanding of the role plants play in our lives and the health of our planet.
One presentation that caught my attention was by Houston Snead of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, who talked about getting involved with plant conservation at a grass roots level. He explained how he made connections with people who helped him along on his journey to protect declining populations of fringe orchids (Platanthera chapmanii) in Florida. Many individuals and organizations provided support, and he was ultimately able to secure protected status for this plant from the state of Florida. AZH also provides many types of support for plant conservation programs around the world including grant funding. Success stories like Houston’s inspire me to increase my own efforts at plant conservation. As Frank Pizzi, curator of horticulture at Pittsburgh Zoo, put it, “Sharpen your pruners and get going!”
One large ficus tree at Naples Zoo sheltered numerous birds and supported a variety of epiphytic plants. Photo by Sandy Masuo
Naples Zoo is home to many different animals, but I was there for the plants! Many tropicals accentuate the exhibits and provide a shady respite for visitors to escape from the Florida sun. It was under these trees that I enjoyed talking with fellow attendees and other zoo guests. We were particularly impressed with one large ficus tree that sheltered numerous birds and supported epiphytic plants, just like the ones I saw in the swamps.
Local people named many of the giant cypresses. “Asteenahoofa” was very impressive! Photo by Andrew Lyell
Naples lies on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and is surrounded by plenty of wetlands. We visited the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp, which is dominated by bald cypress trees. (These are featured around the tomistoma pools at the L.A. Zoo, though because they are growing on dry land, they do not form the characteristic “knees” that they develop in their natural habitat—an adaptation to help the trees breathe in watery conditions.) Some are so massive that they are virtually a habitat by themselves. Large strangler fig trees were enveloping some of the cypresses, Spanish moss draped languidly on the branches, and tillandsias (air plants) clung tenaciously with their aerial roots all over the trees. Various birds and reptiles and insects also took refuge in the trees as well as seeking food there. Many cypresses were named by the local people. One that left a big impression on me was a giant called “Asteenahoofa” by the Seminoles.
Swamps are amazing ecosystems. They are able to absorb the power of hurricanes practically unscathed, and any damage done is quickly “up-cycled” into other life forms. I saw two massive cypress trees that were downed during the recent hurricanes, but, as nature intended, other life forms were quickly colonizing the logs. Animals were sunning themselves on them or hiding in them. These trees also become “nurse logs” for many other types of plants.
Visiting the swamp, had visions of dodging alligators and running across their backs as in the ’80s video game, Pitfall. But the only gators I saw were sunning themselves near drainage canals—and at the Naples Zoo. Photo by Sandy Masuo
Since I hadn’t visited a swamp before, I expected to see alligators—lots of them. I had visions of dodging them and running across their backs as in the ’80s video game, Pitfall. But it wasn’t until we left the area and were traveling down the highway that I spied some gators hauled out on the bank of a drainage canal sunning themselves. And the mosquitoes that I was also expecting must have been blown away in Irma, because I didn’t encounter any during my stay—not even in the swamps, which I thought were infested with the wee beasts. I saw more mangrove crabs in the mangrove swamp than mosquitoes.
I encountered more mangrove crabs than mosquitoes. Photo by Sandy Masuo Naples Zoo staff performed miracles to make this meeting happen and the zoo looked amazing—kudos to former AZH President Danielle Green and her staff for hosting a great conference!