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Charleston man produces rare blossoming ghost orchid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Aaron Saxton of Charleston may take issue with author Louisa May Alcott's assertion that "love is a flower that grows in any soil."

It took two years of research and experimentation, the construction of three progressively better climate-controlled growth chambers, and numerous brushes with failure before Saxton was able to produce the flower he pledged to present to his love, Maria Armada, if she agreed to marry him.

Saxton knew delivering on the promise wouldn't be easy, since he picked the bloom of one of the world's most rare, most difficult to raise flowers -- the ghost orchid -- to present to his bride-to-be.

But he was determined to try, aided in part by one belief: "It was kind of a hopeless dream, but I figured she'd probably marry me anyway, if it didn't work out," he said with a grin.

"When he told me he'd get a ghost orchid to bloom, I thought it was a sweet statement, but I really didn't believe it," said Maria Armada Saxton, who married Aaron Saxton on June 27. "Now when he tells me he's going to do something, I have to think it's probably going to happen."

Botanists first learned of the existence of the ghost orchid in 1844, when the first specimen was recorded in a Cuban swamp. Fifty years later, the orchid was discovered to be living in small populations in scattered wetlands in Florida.

Today, a total population estimated at less than 2,000 can be found in only three or four protected swamps in southern Florida.

"Less than 5 percent of those ghost orchids bloom in the wild, and in the past 20 years, only about six people have successfully grown the ghost orchid outside of its natural environment in the Everglades, and only a few of them have gotten the orchids to bloom," Saxton said.

"The chance to see these flowers in bloom is extremely rare."

Each year, hundreds of people travel to Florida from around the world for the chance at catching a glimpse of a ghost orchid in bloom in its native habitat. The white, leafless blossoms, each with a pair of leg-like tendrils, can be seen dangling, seemingly suspended in mid-air, from thin roots attached to the trunks and limbs of trees.

The rare flower was the topic of a best-selling non-fiction book, "The Orchid Thief," which was the basis for the 2002 Spike Jonze movie "Adaptation."

"Most of the rarest flowers in the world are kind of ugly," Saxton said. "This one doesn't have bells and whistles, and its not done out in neon, but it's a beautiful thing -- a little bit of a sculpture. And seeing it unfold is really something."

Saxton, a native of Australia, and Armada, a native of Charleston, developed a mutual interest in orchids after taking a trip to Washington, D.C., and visiting a farmers market where orchids were being sold.

They later visited an orchid greenhouse, met orchid growers and scientists, and began growing orchids in Charleston. About two years ago, Saxton decided to test his green thumb by buying some ghost orchid rootstock from a commercial greenhouse. The low success rate at keeping the nursery-produced ghost orchids alive is surpassed by an even more dismal record at getting the domesticated orchids to bloom.

"Of the few that survive to adulthood, only a handful have bloomed in captivity in greenhouses," Saxton said. "Mine may be the only to have grown, and bloomed, in a totally artificial environment."

Since thousands of ghost orchid rootstock cuttings have been sold to would-be growers over the years, producing fewer than a half-dozen adults that were able to bloom, "I needed to figure out what was missing from the equation most people were following," Saxton said.

The Australian, who buys, refurbishes and sells mid 20th-century furniture, spent months researching the rare orchid and its various domestic growing schemes. He tried and failed at several approaches of his own before coming up with a growth chamber needed to replicate the orchid's "exceptionally complicated" survival habitat.

Saxton's growth chamber controls the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethylene the orchid is exposed to. It also regulates humidity, light exposure and air pressure, and uses an inner chamber equipped with an ultraviolet light to zap any pathogens entering the system.

The roots of Saxton's ghost orchid spread through the cracked surface of a hunk of bark from a cork tree. A cupboard in the couple's South Hills home is filled with chemicals used in creating the self-blended fertilizer mix that nourishes the rare orchid.

"You need very precise conditions for the orchid to bloom," he said. "You have to change its metabolism during the day and also at night."

With his homegrown ghost orchid having bloomed twice, Saxton is ready to build a much bigger commercial-sized growth chamber. His intention is to grow and sell ghost orchids mature enough to produce flower spikes.

"It will take about three years to raise them to adulthood," he said. "So far, no one has been able to offer ghost orchids with flowers."

A reliable system for propagating the rare orchid is needed to ensure that it survives habitat loss, poaching, climate change and a dwindling population.

"If we could have a ghost orchid nursery, with 300 or 400 orchids in bloom, maybe we could experiment with producing a hybrid to give it the genetic strength it needs to make it in the world," Saxton said.

Meanwhile, Saxton said he would like to take a little time off before beginning the next stage of his orchid project. "If I could tell you what it took, in terms of hours and money, to get this far, you'd shoot me as an idiot," he said. Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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