Stiff Flower Star Orchid

Epidendrum rigidum

Stiff Flower Star Orchid

Stiff Flower Star Orchid, photographed at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in March 2017.

One thing is certain about the stiff flower star orchid, Epidendrum rigidum: It's in no danger of ending up as part of someone's prom corsage. Beauty isn't its strong suit, so to speak.

Donovan Stewart Correll, in his book, Native Orchids of North America North of Mexico, calls it scraggily, an "ugly duckling in a family of swans." We really can't argue the point. It really is a rather ordinary looking plant. Correll goes on to say that in parts of Florida, stiff flower star orchid is considered an "epiphytic weed." We do take issue with that.

First of all, lack of looks and all, stiff flower star orchid is a Florida native and a rare one at that. It's state-listed as endangered, like many of Florida's native orchids. And it is an orchid after all, and coming across one growing in the wild, regardless of the species, is a cool reminder of the great diversity of Florida's flora.

Stiff flower star orchid is only found in Florida among the 50 states, and only in the counties from Lake Okeechobee south. The United States Department of Agriculture excludes Monroe County from its range, but the Institute for Regional Conservation includes the mainland portion of the county but not the Keys.

The IRC says the stiff flower star orchid is exceedingly rare, particularly outside of Collier County; it's known to grow in only one place in Broward County, Fern Forest Nature Center. The IRC considers the orchid "imperiled" but it is not on the federal Endangered Species List.

The good news is that stiff flower star orchid has a wide natural range that extends through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America to Peru and Brazil. In places like Jamaica, it's considered common.

It is a perennial and an epiphyte — an air plant — that grows on a variety of trees, including cypress. It gleans water and nutrients from the air, what gathers on the plant itself and what it can pick up from the surface of its host, the thing that it is growing on. It is not a parasite and doesn't harm its host. It likes moist, humid places, such as swamps. The plant itself can grow to about 15 or 16 inches; leaves are alternate, leathery and eliptical in shape. Flowers emerge from a spike that is stiff, hence the common and scientific names. (Epidendrum, the genus name, means upon the tree. Epidendrum has more than 1,500 members, and our guy is the most widespread and common member in the hemisphere). Flowers are green to yellowish green, star shaped and appear year round in Florida. They self-pollinate; seeds are minute and dispersed by wind.

Scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in the early 2000s isolated bibenzyl chemicals found in stiff flowered star orchid and found they could be useful as herbicides. An added benefit; they were minimally toxic to animals.

Stiff flower star orchid is a member of Orchidaceae, the orchid family. Other common names: zig zag orchid and rigid epidendrum.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.