Author NextSteps

Author NextSteps

Lost and Found in Cuba, Part 7

by Dennis Giardina

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

Matthew 7:7-8

About twenty years ago I got the book The Native Orchids of Florida by Carlyle A. Luer. It was out of print, but I happened to find someone willing to sell me a copy of this big, almost coffee-table-sized hardcover. Originally published in 1972, it contains an impressive amount of good information and images of all the species found within the state. It has become one of the most useful reference books I have ever owned. When I first got it, I focused on learning the epiphytic orchids of the Fakahatchee Strand, especially the rarest ones. Two species stood out to me: the rat-tail orchid, Bulbophyllum pachyrachis, and Epidendrum acunae, because they were documented and photographed in Fakahatchee by Dr. Luer during the 1960s. Apparently not long thereafter, they became extinct. I read the descriptions of these “lost” orchids and studied the photos over and over.

I started to explore the deep sloughs of the Fakahatchee Strand, looking for rare orchids, wondering about the two extirpated species and if they could still be out there somewhere. I got to know and then work with Mike Owen. About ten years ago Mike and I started a conversation about finding the lost orchids, one we’re still having. We have repeatedly explored the areas where they were last seen in Fakahatchee, and we’ve searched for them in other remote places. This includes western Cuba, which is where I found myself on a lovely autumn morning in the Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve, sitting in the crotch of a tree that was covered by a hundred or more rat-tail orchids with dozens and dozens of flower spikes in full bloom.

Guide with Bulbophyllum pachyrachis colony.

Guide with Bulbophyllum pachyrachis colony.

Yes, there were several seed capsules as well. Whatever insect pollinates this species had already done its thing to some of the earliest flowers at the top of a few of the long, fleshy peduncles. Aside from the mystique of being one of the lost orchids, the rat-tail orchid, Bulbophyllum pachyrachis, has to have the most bizarre flower of any of our native orchids. The peduncle or flower spike usually hangs from the plant like a skinny spear of asparagus, upon which emerge dozens of weird little flowers that look like lobster claw meat. They start at the base, descending along the length of it as the inflorescence matures.

Close-up of Bulbophyllum pachyrachis fruit.

Close-up of Bulbophyllum pachyrachis fruit.

 

The genus Bulbophyllum is not very well represented in the Western Hemisphere, but on the other side of the world, it is extremely well represented. In fact, it may be the most speciose genus in the orchid family, with over 2,000 known species. The center of evolution and diversity of the genus is in the montane rainforests of Papua New Guinea, where more than 600 species have been documented. An internet search for images of Bulbophyllum orchids will reveal some of the wildest looking flowers of any group of plants on the planet. Whether the inflorescence of the species B. pachyrachis looks like a rat’s tail or not, I’ll leave to the eye of the beholder, but cascading down from this impressive colony were many inflorescences, some over a foot long.

I was thrilled when I first saw this species in bloom at Soroa Botanical Garden in October, 2012 (see Lost & Found in Cuba, Part 2). Up until then, I only knew it from the pictures in Dr. Luer’s book. I was astounded by this exuberant, wild colony of rat-tail orchids, and it was only the first of four populations that we visited and examined that afternoon.

The next day Dr. Rolando Perez, Director of Science at Soroa Botanical Garden, and I returned to Soroa. The following morning I set out at day break with two guys from the Botanical Garden to explore the Rio Tacotaco in the Guaniguanico Mountains. Somewhere up this river, a population of Epidendrum acunae was documented, and to find it was our mission. Rolando dropped us off at a bridge at the base of the mountain, and we hiked up the river, crossing it a bunch of times rock to rock. It was a beautiful, cool morning due to the passage of a cold front that we felt all the way down in Zapata the day before.

Lesser Cuban Racer (Caraiba andreae).

Lesser Cuban Racer (Caraiba andreae).

The sunrise over the karst hills was spectacular, and the rising temperature brought out some reptiles to bask along the open trail. The first one we came across was a Cuban racer, Cubophis cantherigerus, that unfortunately had its head removed by someone with a machete not long before we showed up. A bit further up the trail we came upon another snake, a lesser Cuban racer, Caraiba andreae, stretched out in a patch of morning sunlight. It was shiny black above, creamy white below, and very tolerant of my camera.

As we worked our way up the mountain, the forest surrounding the river became taller and its canopy wider. We started to see more bromeliads and other epiphytes, and at some point our path led us through a grove of planted coffee, then through the front yard of the man who cultivated it. On his roof, coffee beans drying in the sun. In the back yard, coffee beans fermenting in a wooden bin. And on his little stove, hand roasted, hot brewed coffee that he apologetically served to us in little aluminum cups. After a brief visit we headed back down to the river with a caffeine-inspired bounce in our step, and I asked the guys to guess when the last time a gringo had set foot there. They looked at each other, shrugged and one said, “Maybe never.”

Back on the river we continued our search for Epidendrum acunae. The guys were told more or less where to look for it, but neither of them had seen it before. We were told that it was considerably large, growing fairly high up in a tree, but that was all. We came to a place where the river narrowed into a shallow, fast-moving riffle that cascaded downstream. The banks of the river were steep, and in the middle of the river was an enormous, vegetation-covered boulder that diverted the flowing water around it. It apparently also blocked the downdraft of air from the river above, creating a microclimate with a higher relative humidity than anywhere else around it.

Epidendrum acunae, 25’ high on a royal palm.

Epidendrum acunae, 25’ high on a royal palm.

On the downstream side of the boulder was a stand of Royal Palm trees, growing in an accretion of rocks and sediment. When I scanned the moss and lichen covered trunks of the Royal Palms I noticed a big bare patch on one of them about twenty-five feet up. Below it I noticed three pendent but upturned orchids studded with long, narrow leaves. When I focused in on them with my binoculars, I realized that I was looking at Epidendrum acunae! Wow!

Epidendrum acunae babies below.

Epidendrum acunae babies below.

 

When I looked around the bases of the palms and on some of the other tree trunks next to them, I found a bunch of juveniles, some barely an inch long. We hypothesized that a mature plant once clung to the Royal Palm at the bare patch, then it became heavier than the roots could handle. Eventually rain and wind peeled it off and knocked it down into the river. I expect that a reproductive population of Epidendrum acunae will eventually reestablish there from these young plants, but it will be years before any of them could be expected to flower and fruit. We searched the river and its banks around this site for several more hours, but we did not find any more specimens outside of this sheltered pocket. One notable thing though – growing along this little stretch of the Rio Tacotaco, within a couple of hundred feet of this cluster of Epidendrum acunae, were the other three lost orchids: Brassia caudata, Macradenia lutescens and Bulbophyllum pachyrachis.

Guaniguanico Sunset after an eventful day.

Guaniguanico Sunset after an eventful day.

We finally had to stop our search and descend the mountain to meet Rolando, who brought with him a bottle of rum that the four of us shared while we recounted the day’s adventure. On our drive back to Soroa, I asked Rolando to pull over so I could take a picture of the mountain range illuminated by the setting sun. I stood there for a moment and reflected upon the events of this trip. I offered up my overwhelming gratitude to the universe and then I got back into the car.

To be continued…

Dennis Giardina is the Everglades Region Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and was formerly the Park Manager of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve.

Lost and Found in Cuba, Part 6

by Dennis Giardina

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams – this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness – and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra,
“The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha”

Luckily, I was born with an innate sense of optimism. Within the sea of impulses, thoughts and emotions in my head, there has always been this particularly buoyant one. Over the course of my life I have cultivated a relationship with this “logos” or inner guiding voice and it has helped me to develop a more positive perspective on my life and life overall. Before I read anything at all about Plato, the ideal of a life worth living being one that is focused upon the just, the good, and the beautiful made sense to me. The just, the true, and the good can be a bit hard to pin down but to me or any beholder, the beautiful is self-evident and my pursuit of the beautiful has brought with it some insight into the other perhaps more noble concepts and they have brought me to this point. To me, Fakahatchee’s native orchids are beautiful – to protect and conserve them is good and to bring back those that were wiped out by short-sighted human enterprise is just.

Rolando Perez, Dona Tica, Leyani Caballero

Rolando Perez, Dona Tica, Leyani Caballero

I returned to Cuba for the fourth time in two years, during the last week of November, 2014. Six months beforehand, my colleague and friend Rolando Pérez, the Director of Science at Orquideario de Soroa Botanical Garden began the paperwork process to be able to take me with him to collect fruits and specimens of our lost orchids at four separate sites in western Cuba. When he received the reply from the University of Pinar del Rio, they authorized only one of the four sites, Ciénaga de Zapata. There was no explanation as to why the other three sites were not permitted, they just weren’t. When I was a kid the governing structure of our house was a sort of benevolent dictatorship and I knew that when I asked my father if I could go somewhere or do something beyond what he was comfortable with, the first answer was always no. Unlike my childhood, where an explanation of the reasons for rejection were usually delivered and my appeal given a chance to be heard, the answer was no and there was nothing I could do about it.

After I arrived at Jose Marti Airport, for the second time I was pulled aside and interviewed by a uniformed official before I exited with my luggage. When I walked outside, Rolando was there to greet me. As we walked together to the car rental office right next door, we were stopped by a plain-clothed officer of some type and Rolando was made to show his ID and questioned as to what he was doing with me. These episodes of unnerving, authoritarian inconvenience apparently come with being in Cuba and they were starting to add up. Although I am tempted to complain about the things that I have experienced and felt while in Cuba and to repeat some of the things that my Cuban friends and colleagues have whispered to me, I don’t want to overreact to them or understate the generosity and welcome that I have received from officials of the Cuban government. I’ll just sum it up by saying that my experiences there have made my appreciation of the rights I enjoy as a U.S. citizen something much more palpable. My visits to Cuba have helped to bring out my inner patriot.

Driving in Cuba is stressful, especially in Havana. I was glad that I was able to pay an additional fee to allow Rolando to drive the little Kia rental car but I’m not sure how much less stressful it was ultimately because of the way he drove it. He drove us to Soroa where I spent the night in a guest house and the next day he drove us to Ciénaga de Zapata, the bootshaped peninsula on the Caribbean coast south of Havana.

Macradenia lutescens in bloom in Dona Tica’s backyard garden.

Macradenia lutescens in bloom in Dona Tica’s backyard garden.

We picked up our friend and colleague Leyaní Caballero who is the community outreach person at the biosphere reserve and a truly lovely person. She is also a botanist and she wrote the book on the orchids of the Zapata Swamp. Our next stop was at the home of Doña Tica, a woman who lives in the community on the outskirts of the reserve and a real character. She loves orchids and has a pretty impressive native orchid collection in her backyard, including a couple of Florida’s lost orchids.

The four of us made our first exploration into the Zapata Swamp a short drive from Tica’s house. As we walked down the grassy path that led into the reserve, I got my first glimpse of the friendly but antagonistic dynamic between Rolando and Tica, constantly teasing each other and laughing like kids. While Leyaní and I walked behind them, conversing much more amicably, I also got my first glimpse of the swamp’s mosquitos and they got their first taste of me.

Over the course of three days we explored the Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve. We found many species of orchids, including a monster specimen of the cigar orchid, Cyrtopodium punctatum, growing where we suspect they once grew in Fakahatchee, up in the forest canopy. On our first foray out into the swamp we stumbled across a nice colony of Macradenia lutescens, one of the Everglades lost orchids in fruit and we collected several ripe seed capsules. On day two, we ventured a bit farther out into the reserve to the area of San Lazaro where we collected many specimens of Encyclia and Tolumnia, species of particular interest to Rolando for the botanical garden’s collection.

Bulbophyllum pachyrachis in situ, Zapata Swamp.

Bulbophyllum pachyrachis in situ, Zapata Swamp.

On the third day, we enlisted the help of one of the locals, a man who subsists in part by hunting and fishing around the reserve, whose wife also loves orchids and they, too, have a collection of native Cuban orchids in their backyard. During one of his hunting trips, he encountered an orchid species that caught his eye because he’d never seen a flower like it before. He brought back a sack full of them and attached them to the mango and avocado trees on the side of their house. Without knowing it, he discovered the first population of Bulbophyllum pachyrachis, rat tail orchids in the Zapata Swamp.

After a two and a half hour drive on a Janes Scenic Drive-like dirt road, we started down a foot path that led us out into the deeper swamp where a world class swarm of mosquitos celebrated our arrival. As we crossed through a marsh and then a deep slough, I patted the machete on my hip and I thought about Cuban crocodiles, Crocodylus rhombifer, a small but reportedly very aggressive species. I hoped that if we were to see one that we’d see it before it saw us. We startled a flock of wading birds from their perch and heard the splashing of something large out in the water beyond our line of sight.

As the trail rose up out of the murky water, we re-entered the broadleaf forest. Ahead of us was a fairly large tree, laden with epiphytes. As we walked closer I couldn’t believe my eyes and I found myself looking at something that up until that point I had only dreamed of seeing – a wild population of rat tail orchids. In my head I heard the voice of Mike Owen screaming, “Touch down!” I climbed up into the tree and inspected the dozens and dozens of Bulbophyllum pachyrachis orchids that were at that moment in full raging bloom but the most important question was, were there any in fruits? Were there any seed capsules?

To be continued…

Dennis Giardina is the Everglades Region Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He was formerly the Park Manager of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve.

Big Cypress Boardwalk Expansion Begins

boardwalk_startsFriends of Fakahatchee Vice President Patrick Higgins checks out the silt fences on the north side of the Tamiami Trail at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. They were installed by the state to prepare for the installation of a deceleration lane that will eventually lead to a new paved parking area. The FOF, working with the Florida Park Service, have developed a multi-year Boardwalk Expansion Project to significantly upgrade the site.

The Combined Fakahatchee East Main–Pennington Post–Uplands Trails Loop

by Tony Marx

east-main-trail4web

Note: this article was written by the author in 2015 and updated by the Friends of Fakahatchee in 2022. East Main trail at gate #12 is relatively well maintained for approx. 2 miles, the rest of the trail will become increasingly difficult to hike or cycle past the 2 mile point and may become impassible.

For current trail conditions call the Fakahatchee park office 239-695-4593

 

While it’s great to experience the interior of America’s only tropical forest from the comparative comfort of the Boardwalk on Tamiami Trail, The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park contains dirt trails suitable for all interests. Ranging from the 2.5-mile long West Main Trail to the 12-mile long East Main Trail, these offer a closer view of this wilderness.

However, since camping is not permitted in the Fakahatchee, the longer trails cannot be completed on foot and may only be visited by walking as far as possible then turning back.

In May 2015 I decided to attempt a circuit of the longest trio, East Main − Pennington Post − Uplands trails and back to the start by mountain bike before the summer rains curtailed it. Primed by numerous past experiences, I knew “if anything can go wrong it will.” I have a mountain bike with 2.1” tires, rear carrier and panniers containing anything I need on a long bike trip.

I planned ahead by also printing out a topo map complete with map references and waypoints. From long experience in South Florida I equipped with the following, especially necessary on a long trip and also because I was alone:

Personal Equipment

  • Helmet – Apart from a spill, it protects you against low hanging branches. At least wear sturdy head covering of some kind.
  • Insect repellent in summer, sun lotion.
  • Long sleeved shirt and long pants – In May there are still few mosquitos or bugs, but it helps prevent scratches especially from trackside thorns.
  • Lightly tinted eye shades – not for sun but to protect the eyes from low hanging branches and vines.
  • Protective foot wear – at least sneakers and better, light boots in case you end up pushing your bike through mud or over rough ground.
  • Knife.
  • Weather protection for summer.
  • Cell phone. (Editor’s Note: Cell service is not available in many sections.)
  • Food & snacks.
  • Adequate water! The amount differs with size, but as a rule of thumb you need at least a pint an hour. A liter weighs 2 lbs. but that’s no problem if your bike is carrying it. Before you set off, pre-hydrate by drinking as much as you can – up to a liter. Carry at least 4 liters on this trip. Freeze a couple of pints overnight so they stay cool in your pack. On return to your car you will need to re-hydrate for some time after, so have more water there also.

Preparation

  • It is a good idea to puncture-proof your bike as far as possible. At least, install a plastic liner strip between the tube and tire and/or Schwinn Self-sealing tubes. You can even buy Teflon reinforced tires to stop thorns in the first place. If not handy or not inclined to DIY, a bike shop will do this for you but you must know how to change a tube when you are miles from anywhere.
  • I recommend also carrying a can or two of bicycle tire inflator with sealant, obtainable at Walmart and most large stores. Purists may sneer, but it saves time and works well with small thorn punctures.
  • Bicycle pump, 2 spare tubes (better than trying to repair with patches without a water source to locate the problem).
  • Tools to handle repairs.
  • First aid kit.
  • Trail map, GPS and/compass (Thick tree canopy may hinder satellite coverage) If you follow the blue ribbons remaining after the last Ultra marathon you could dispense with GPS but it helps to take a map reference or confirm your location – especially in emergency.
  • Let someone reliable know what route you are taking, with estimated completion time.

 

Tony’s Route

biking_pt2_map1 The entrance to East Main trail at Gate # 12 is on Janes Scenic Drive, from the Fakahatchee’s park entrance drive approximately 6 miles on Janes Scenic drive (a dirt road) to gate #12 where you will find ample parking and and a kiosk with trail information next to gate #12. Two miles in from the start, the trail steadily deteriorates. Hazards are occasional washouts covered by a few planks of lumber, fallen trees and branches and vines which sometimes snake across at face height. Be especially careful not to ride over or brush against the Smilax vine which is armed with sharp thorns. I stop and carefully set them aside.

After 12.0 Miles you reach the junction with Jones Grade Trail N.26° 08.496 W. 081° 23.887 (that heads E. to Rt.29 in case of emergency). Continue north .5 miles and trail bends west at N.26° 08.849 W.081° 23.887 then runs parallel with I-75 which lies about a mile to the north and you hear faint traffic. The trail displays occasional blue ribbons. The tree cover thins but the overhead canopy remains for long distances, which can lose satellite coverage here and there if you are using a small or older GPS unit.

After 3.57 miles from the junction with Jones Grade you see the first, less obvious Uplands  trail  section  headed  south  at  N26°08.828 W.081°26.146. Ignore it and continue on.

After a further 1.41 miles you reach the second Uplands Trail headed south, at N26°08.918 W.81°26.615. It should also still be marked with blue ribbons. Turn south here and follow the most clearly beaten trail marked with occasional blue ribbons, as there are several side trails. It tends to curve and zigzag both S.E. and S.W. through stretches of upland pine in the northern stretch, changing to open marl prairie  in  the  southern  section  which  will  become  swampy  in summer. There are also occasional sections of protruding rock above the trail surface which make for a bumpy ride.

After approximately 11 miles you reach Jane Scenic Drive opposite the entrance to Picayune State Forest at N. 26°053087, W.081°455758.

Now bike 5.0 miles back to the start at Gate 12, and you have completed approximately 33 miles.

With occasional stops, lunch and to change a tube, it took me 7 hours. During that time I did not encounter a single person – hence the need to take the precautions I have detailed above.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and former FOF Board Member..