The book “The Orchid Thief” and the movie based on it, “Adaptation,” brought the issue of orchid poaching into the cultural consciousness. But Alexa Elliott of PBS affiliate WGCU-TV in Fort Myers, Fla., knew the bigger threat to the beautiful flower came in the form of habitat encroachment. She explored the environment of South Florida’s native orchids for what became a half-hour show, part of WGCU’s ongoing environmental series.
“In all of South Florida the environment is such a huge topic,” Ms. Elliott said. “With so much development and growth, there are a lot of great environmental stories to be covered.” She said the station has regularly covered issues of environmental importance to southwest Florida, such as panthers, the Gulf of Mexico and Everglades restoration. “Orchids fit in with that. They are flowers, but they are more than flowers because they are endangered,” she said. They are also an “indicator species,” in other words, when orchids are troubled, so is the rest of the ecosystem, she said.
The flower came to attention with the book and the subsequent movie, which dealt with theft of the flowers. But Ms. Elliott felt the conservational aspect of the orchid story was getting lost.
“The biggest threat isn’t poaching. It’s habitat destruction,” she said. The more wetlands that are destroyed, the less habitat there is for orchids, as well as other plant and animal species. “If you have healthy orchids, you have a healthy ecosystem. We wanted to educate people about what orchids we have in South Florida, where do they grow, how they tie in with the natural ecosystem of Florida,” she explained.
Florida is home to about half of all native orchid species growing in the U.S. and Canada, with the southern portion of the state being the most orchid-rich, she said. But the majority of these flowers are considered endangered or threatened.
“Drainage of wetlands has led to a loss of orchid habitat, and poachers hoping to make a fast buck are further reducing the numbers of rare orchids growing in the wild,” she said.
The piece addressed what’s being done to save the flowers and describes how scientists will propagate orchids by hand and reintroduce them to swamps. “It’s more of a value thing. … It adds to the quality of life,” she said.
She said WGCU syndicated the episode through American Public Television to more than 50 other public TV stations around the country.