Monday, July 28, 2008

Orchid lover turns road warrior

© Daytona Beach News-Journal The lone woman in a fluorescent-orange vest strides purposefully through the knee-high grass in the middle of the four-lane highway, head down, stooping here and there to pluck a little white flag and add it to the fistful she carries. Big trucks blow past, bending the tall grass around her. A steady snarl, zrrrrr-zrrrrr-zrrrrr, of traffic on both sides accompanies her seasonal strolls through a long, narrow and very special public garden -- unlike any other in this place we live. A dedicated wildflower lover, Jennifer Reinoso is especially dedicated to a few small colonies of native terrestrial orchids that grow in the median and alongside U.S. 92 west of Daytona Beach. For five years, with permission and assistance of the Florida Department of Transportation, she has monitored and protected these threatened orchids. Under her care, they have flourished. "I love Florida's wildflowers," she said. "Many people consider wildflowers nothing but weeds, (but) some of them are quite beautiful when blooming in masses. . . . I hate it when the wildflowers are mowed down!" Almost a decade ago she became one of some 17,000 drivers a day on U.S. 92 and, on her way to and from work, she noticed occasional single spikes of white and reddish flowers. As a member of the Volusia County Orchid Society for 23 years and an American Orchid Society judge, Reinoso knew they were orchids. "I am passionate about orchids," she said. The white ladies' tresses, while beautiful, are quite common, almost like weeds, said Reinoso of DeLand. But the coral red blossoms in the grass were leafless beaked orchids (Sacoila lanceolata), a threatened species in Florida because their populations -- although present in half the state's counties -- are rapidly declining. These native orchids, which grow in old fields and pine flatwoods, are known by many names, including terra cotta because of the color. Orchid books credit Jean Baptiste Christophore Fusee Aublet, an 18th-century French botanist who collected plants in the American tropics, with the first published description in 1775. It especially bothered Reinoso when the special orchids were mowed before they matured and spread tiny dust-like seeds. In 2004, she decided to do something about it. Reinoso contacted Stephen Tonjes, the DOT's senior environmental scientist in the nine-county Fifth District office and found a sympathetic and decidedly helpful ear. Five seasons later, Tonjes says Reinoso's volunteer work has been the key to the survival and success of those orchids. "The Florida Department of Transportation doesn't have the resources to canvass all our roadsides and set flags by the flowers," he said. "We depend on people like Jennifer. "Personally, I enjoy the beauty and diversity of our native plants, and obviously the public values it too," Tonjes said. "It's gratifying to be able to preserve some of that diversity without spending a lot of extra roadway dollars to do so." The first year, Tonjes set the flags and alerted the mowing crew to avoid the plants. The next year, he gave Reinoso more flags and a safety vest to use when marking the orchids. This year, he lent her a yellow strobe light to put on top of the car and ordered signs for two locations. Under their protection for the last five years, the number of orchids has multiplied from about 200 to almost 900 last year. Dry weather this season lessened the number of blooms. "The drought was definitely a factor in April and May. Usually May is the peak blooming time, but this year, the early drought followed by rain in May initiated a second round of blooming that extended into July," she said. Her effort is the only one like it in this area, Tonjes said. In Marion County, Native Plant Society volunteers care for an endangered mint plant along Interstate 75. Reinoso's effort has spread from U.S. 92 to include an orchid colony on Tomoka Farms Road and another on Interstate 4 near Lake Helen. On U.S. 92, Tonjes said annual mowing continues as usual until April or so when Reinoso alerts him that spikes have appeared. She marks the plants with "Do Not Mow" flags, and Tonjes notifies the mowing supervisor. By July, the flowers have seeded. Reinoso removes the flags and the areas are mowed. Mistakes do occur. This year, mowers went through two colonies. "It was extremely frustrating, especially when Steve had sent out fliers with photos printed in English and Spanish," Reinoso said. "I was also upset with myself, because that morning I thought of pulling over and handing the men a flier just to be on the safe side." Despite occasional setbacks, Reinoso and Tonjes feel good about the effort. "I like preserving these beautiful orchids, being able to preserve something that is threatened, something that other people can enjoy," she said. "It's my little part in conservation." Since she was a child, Reinoso said, she has been interested in plants and flowers and butterflies, but about 20 years ago, she first experienced the awe of an orchid blooming. "It was like . . . it was . . ." she groped for words to describe her feelings, then gave up. "It's a disease. Let's face it. It's a sickness. It's a passion." And what a fine passion when thousands and thousands of motorists can share. ronald.williamson@news-jrnl.com

1 comment:

Prem Subrahmanyam said...

I find this development very encouraging. I know in north Florida, there are many orchid-rich roadsides which get continually mowed down during peak orchid bloom seasons.