2011 Summer Interview Series,  Thoughts

2011 Summer Interview Series | Prem @ Florida Native Orchids

After Chris discovered Little Slough and our subsequent count and documentation of 607 ghost orchids within about an acre in the swamps of south Florida (doubling the then known population in Florida), Prem got in touch with me about his interest in ghost orchids and how he hadn’t been able to see one. He was already an avidly interested in the native orchids of Florida and had documented many others throughout Florida. Now there is a small contingent of photographers and adventurers who seek the ghost orchid out, either documenting their own pockets of ghost orchids or seeking other lost orchids and rare plants in the wilds of Florida. Prem is just one of these folks and his botanical experiences are worth sharing.

First off, give us an idea of who you are, why you blog and your geographic location.

Hi, I’m Prem Subrahmanyam, a software engineer by vocation and a naturalist, botanist, and photographer by avocation. I grew up in a rural area near Tallahassee, Florida and have become a recent transplant to the Orlando area with my wife and 15 children (yes, you read that correctly – fifteen). My oldest two are in college and my youngest is just learning to crawl. Joy and I have been happily married for 20 years. I am most interested in Florida’s native orchids, for which I’ve created a website, Florida Native Orchids blog. I also travel to various orchid and garden societies to lecture on our native orchids. My next big lecture will be at the Coalition for Orchid Species Symposium at Fairchild Tropical Gardens on July 24th. I also have a small collection of cultivated orchid species, which I photograph and publish to my site Orchid Stock Photos.

How did you begin your interest in the botanical world?

Growing up where I did, I was always surrounded by nature – a state forest abutting our property and a national forest across the street. I would often take walks or bike rides in the woods to explore the area. Through 4-H, I joined the horticulture ID and forest ecology judging teams, where I became familiar with a number of plants. Thirsting for more botanical knowledge, I would consult plant and wildflower guides to further identify the things I would encounter.

I became interested in orchids, specifically, through a National Geographic article that I read (our family had an extensive collection of these). What really intrigued me about this group of plants was not necessarily their aesthetics, although they are beautiful. Instead, it was their structural complexity and design, with so many flowers using unique tricks and mechanisms to achieve pollination. You had flowers such as the bee/wasp orchids of the Mediterranean which imitate the females of species of bees and wasps (down to the placement of hairs and the use of pseudopheromones), and the bucket
orchid of Central/South America which traps its pollinators in a sticky fluid trap (with the only means of escape being beneath the pollen structures), and even our own Calopogon which uses a bristle of pseudostamens to attract its ‘prey’ and then flips the hapless bee on its back on the column waiting below. It is simply breathtaking the myriad of fascinating shapes and sizes in this one family of plants. It was as if the Creator approached this group of plants with reckless abandon, bringing both His sense of whimsy and His genius to bear in designing these remarkable flowers. They answer the question “Is God an engineer or an artist” with a resounding “Yes!”.

I became interested specifically with the native orchids by the few species shown in the book Florida Wild Flowers and Roadside Plants by C. Ritchie Bell and Bryan J. Taylor and later through Carl Luer’s The Native Orchids of Florida. My first copy of Luer has been worn down to near-nothing by the many times I have thumbed through it.

What is your favorite native Florida orchid?

This is hard to answer to the point that I would have to say it’s a dead tie between the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) of south Florida and the Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria) of the more northern regions of our state. The Rosebud was one of the first native orchids I had seen, growing with relative frequency in the Apalachicola State Forest across the street from our home, as well as in further-flung locations within the same forest…too bad you didn’t have your hike
through the ANF correspond with the blooming time of all the lovely native orchids there. The Ghost Orchid has always held my intrigue ever since reading about it in Luer, and I had often dreamed of seeing these in the wild during my teenage years and early adulthood. This dream was finally fulfilled in 2007 seeing the ‘Super Ghost’ at Corkscrew Swamp and the next year on hikes hosted by Larry Roberts, you and Chris. Strike one item off the bucket list!

Is there a plant that you think deserves more love than it actually gets, a red-headed step-child sort of plant?

I think the Jingle Bell/Needleroot Orchid (Dendrophylax porrectus AKA Harrisella porrecta) is both overlooked and underappreciated. Being so small, it can be really hard to find (I had spent more than half my life trying to find this in the wild), being just a mass of untidy, thin roots. The night-fragrant flowers are also very small and
unassuming, being a clear yellow-green and around 5mm across. I firmly believe this is the most populous epiphyte in the state of Florida, having the same range as Encyclia tampensis, but being able to grow in far greater numbers on the tiniest twigs of cypress, pop-ash, pond apple, and eastern red cedar, as well as abandoned citrus groves. I think the most intriguing thing about this species is that it is one of the only Western Hemisphere representatives of the vast Vanda alliance, which primarily grow within the confines of the Eastern Hemisphere.

If you could travel anywhere for a botanic expedition, where would you choose and is there a particular plant you are interested in finding?

Probably Australia – there is a vast array of orchids growing in various regions of that country/continent. I would specially like to see the various Sun Orchids, which are some of the only orchids that are a true blue, rather than the ‘botanical’ blue (which is really more of a purple) seen in most coerulean type orchids. I would also like to see Rhizanthella, which spend their entire lives underground except when they barely break the soil surface with their floral bracts, exposing the subterranean flowers to the atmosphere for pollination and subsequent seed dispersal.

Do you have any tips or resources for beginning naturalists?

Get out in the woods a lot, take lots of pictures, and spend the time trying to identify what you find, using either those antiquated things called books or the internet.

Are there any particular Florida parks or forests novice botanists and naturalists should scope out for interesting plants or unique habitats?

The Goethe State Forest northwest of Ocala has a pretty good array of orchids and other plants. The Apalachicola National Forest in the panhandle has a similar variety. For an introduction to the southern flora, the Corkscrew Swamp is a great way to immerse yourself in our semi-tropical best without getting wet and muddy…save that for another time in the Fakahatchee Strand. Please remember, don’t collect the orchids or even pick their flowers…most are protected by
state law, many are endangered, and all should be left for others to enjoy after you.

Do you think there are any chances for certain ‘lost’ species of orchids in Florida, such as the Bulbophyllum pachyrachis, have a chance of being found again? What about the discovery of a completely undocumented orchid species?

I certainly hope that we will rediscover some of the ‘lost orchids’. We already have a number of species that have been rediscovered in the past two decades, having been lost for a number of years. It is certainly possible to discover new species as well. One new species, described in the late 90s, had been growing under all of our noses for many years, Spiranthes sylvatica. In fact, I had seen this species in the mid-80s in a woodland near the county extension office where I went often for 4-H activities. I thought that it seemed different than Spiranthes praecox, which it resembled, aside from the habitat and blooming seasons being quite different than S. praecox. I had brought it to the attention of a botanist at FSU, but never really pressed the issue. I regret this to this day.

While there may or may not be new species to discover, there are also new varieties and forms of existing species to discover. My son Josh and I discovered a variegated form of Malaxis spicata a few years ago, and I know of someone at the Jacksonville Orchid Society who swears she’s seen a coerulean form of Calopogon tuberosus before. For the record, a coerulean form of C. barbatus has been discovered in the past few years, so this is quite possible.

And finally, tell us the five people you’d love to have over for dinner and why!

I am assuming family members are a given and don’t count toward my selection of five.

Carl Luer – to discuss native orchids.
John Lasseter – I have always loved computer animation and would love to discuss all things Pixar with him.
Clyde Butcher – his photographs of the Everglades are so stunning…I’m sure there is a lot I could learn from him.
Mike Owen – he is such a character and can definitely tell a good tale of his travels in the Fakahatchee Strand.
Bob Hartman – founder, lead guitarist and chief songwriter for my all-time favorite band, Petra. His songs have really impacted me spiritually over the years.

Prem’s website is Florida Native Orchids and he writes at the Florida Native Orchids blog. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


  • Chris

    Nice interview! I check out Prem’s website often…you can tell he has a love of orchids and is a wealth of knowledge about them.

    Misti, is the jinglebell orchid the one we saw on Fisheating Creek that time?

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