Air plants such as orchids and bromeliads are extremely resilient while fragile.
They've flourished for thousands of years in theCaribbean, adapted to tropical storms and hurricanes. Biologists think they first came to Florida on the winds of a hurricane or after a bird ate seeds and then dropped them here.
Modern threats such as poaching, loss of genetic diversity and damaging exotic bugs are taking their toll, wiping out as much as 90 percent of certain species in areas of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve — often called the orchid capital of the U.S.
"They lived for thousands of years without disease or exotic insects," said John Kalafarski, a volunteer who helps monitor orchids at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. "We're part of the species that wiped them out or made them rare. We want to be a part of restoring them, too."
The Mexican bromeliad weevel and boisduval scale insects have ravaged rare orchids in certain areas of the strand. The weevil was introduced accidentally in 1989 in Fort Lauderdale and has since spread west to Fakahatchee Strand andEverglades National Park.
Boisduval scale insects feed on orchids and use the plants as a nursery for their eggs, a colony of which can overtake a pear-sized see pod. Orchid pods can contain 3 million seeds, making each loss significant.
Hundreds of species of orchids and bromeliads flourished here until about a century ago, when coastal areas from Fort Myers to Miami were becoming urbanized. With more people came more stealing, and by the 1980s many species here were extinct. Poaching is still a threat as several ghost orchids were ripped from their host tree in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve within the last year.
A cigar orchid was taken from the preserve recently as well.
"We had one pollinating, and someone took a machete and stripped it off," said Matt Richards, conservation coordinator for the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Poaching reduced numbers and genetic diversity. Like animals, some plant species exchange genetics with other plants and rely on influxes of new DNA.
Richards works with biologists at Fakahatchee Strand, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida International University and other agencies and volunteers on a project that aims to restore some orchid species by growing them in controlled conditions and then transplanting them into the wild.
The group battles insect infestation — at times scraping bug egg colonies off the delicate seed pods by hand — while trying to replenish and protect the rare species still in the swamp.
"Some of them do great, and some of them die," Richards said. "It's survival of the fittest. You'll see one alive right beside one that died."