Orchird Mania

French pilot Edmond Salis flies a replica of the original Bleriot XI, ending his flight after crossing the English Channel from England to land in Calais, northern France, Saturday July 25, 2009.
AP Photo/Thibault Vandermersch
So what would get four people, including one fairly squeamish reporter, to wade far into Florida's Fakahatchee Swamp?

It would have to be orchids, or the Florida clamshell orchid in particular, reported CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver in a story that first aired May 25, 2003.

"This one's multi-colored … little legs down here like an octopus or a spaceship taking off" is the way park biologist Mike Owen describes it.

He has been tracking one particular Florida clamshell orchid for eight years. But it's the first time he will be photographing one.

Famed nature photographer Clyde Butcher and his wife, Nikki, have hauled 50 pounds of camera gear into the swamp just to take a shot of the orchid.

And if they seem obsessed, they're not the only ones. Orchids have become an international multibillion-dollar-a-year industry. More than $12 million are sold in the United States alone.

"You would lie, steal, whatever, to bring an orchid in the house," says Marilyn Mirro. "People come in very sane into an orchid show and they go insane. Who cares about the mortgage payment. Who care about the doctor bill."

Marilyn Mirro's passion paid off this year. The orchid she nurtured for eight years from a $6 seedling, a variety called Julia Sorenson, was named Grand Champion of this year's Florida Orchid Show.

"I was shocked, I was numb. I couldn't believe it," says Mirro. "I never in a million years did I ever think I'd get to this point."

Robert Fuchs crossbred the plant that produced his prize-winning flower. He's owner of RF Orchids in Homestead, Fla.

"It's phenomenal to see one of your youngsters, that you developed, and to reach that level in the orchid world is phenomenal," says Fuchs. "Orchids run in [my] family — three generations of orchid growers."

The Chinese were the first to cultivate orchids, but Victorian England was besotted with them — sending explorers to South America to bring back exotic varieties. It was long before strict laws made it illegal to take wild orchids in many countries.

Currently, there are at least 25,000 known orchid species, many with sophisticated pollination systems.

Over the years, growers learned to cross breed orchids — creating hardy hybrids that can be reproduced cheaply. It's led to orchid democratization. Instead of hundreds of dollars, you can buy one for as little as $20,though some rare specimens can range up to $10,000. But true collectors seem to know no bounds.

Richard Brandon is a former New York actor who retired to Florida nine years ago, intending to fish. But one orchid led to another.

Soon he was creating a whole orchid habitat on his property.

"Initially, I wired them into the tree, to hold them in place, and then nature takes its course because this is how they grow naturally," says Brandon.

But there is one orchid he would like to possess — the Ghost Orchid.

The rare and beautiful Ghost Orchid is an endangered species made famous by Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief." It was turned into the film "Adaptation," in which Chris Cooper played John Laroche, who stole Ghost Orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp, hoping to be the first to reproduce them in a nursery. No one has ever grown them out of the wild.

When LaRoche was arrested, biologist Mike Owen was called in to put the stolen plants back in the swamp.

"It has survived … now nine years, but it's not thriving," says Owen.

In fact, the day we spent in the swamp, there wasn't a Ghost Orchid blossom in sight, because they only bloom once a year.

"One year, there were only three that bloomed," says Butcher, the photographer. "I mean that's not very many plants to keep a species going."

But luckily a while back, Clyde Butcher captured one on film so that all can indulge in orchid mania.

For Further Information:

Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
From November through February, rangers lead a "swamp walk" the third Saturday of the month (weather permitting) beginning at 10 a.m. The swamp walks are limited to 15 people and reservations are required. Telephone Number: (239)695-4593.

R.F. Orchids
28100 S.W. 182nd Avenue
Homestead, FL 33030-1804
Telephone Number: (305)245-4570, Fax: (305)247-6568

Big Cypress Gallery
Ochopee, Fla.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — 7 days
Telephone Number: (239)695-2428

Venice Gallery & Studio
Hours: Monday through Friday 9:30 - 4:30
Telephone Number: (941)486-0811,(888)999-9113
Email: mail@clydebutcher.com