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As flowers go, it's hard to beat the variety and exotic beauty of orchids. And Florida has more native species of orchids than any other state. But even there, after more than a century of logging and development, wild orchids are hard to find.

NPR's Greg Allen reports that a botanic garden near Miami has an ambitious plan: Planting a million orchids throughout South Florida.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is internationally known for its research and conservation, also for its extensive tropical plants collection. Carl Lewis is a biologist and Fairchild's director. He points 30 feet up to the trunk of a palm tree, where a native orchid has taken root.

CARL LEWIS: This is called the cowhorn orchid, Cyrtopodium punctatum.

ALLEN: Oh, yeah.

LEWIS: You can see some fruits hanging there from last year, and the flowers are just starting to open up.

ALLEN: A cluster of yellow and red blossoms reaches out from the orchid's spiky leaves. There are varieties of orchids that grow on the ground. But in sub-tropical South Florida, most grow on the trunks or tree limbs. In the late 1800's, when the railroad came here, they were one of the first resources exploited. Millions of orchids were harvested and sent north as potted plants. Today, few are left in the wild. Lewis expects to change that soon. Under his direction, Fairchild has begun something it calls the Million Orchid Project.

LEWIS: The basic concept is to get these orchids out into the community. We're not looking at putting them in natural areas per se, but we're trying to get them into some of the most population-dense urban areas here in South Florida.

ALLEN: Lewis got the idea from Singapore's Botanic Gardens, which did something similar - establishing orchids in the heart of the city.

LEWIS: And it's amazing to walk down a busy city street. And you wouldn't notice anything unless you look up into the canopy of the trees, and you'll see native, flowering orchids.

ALLEN: Fairchild is starting with three orchid species that it's cultivating from seeds started here - in the Botanic Garden's micro-propagation lab.

STEPHANIE THORMAN: Hello.

LEWIS: Volunteers in here. Stephanie Thorman.

ALLEN: The volunteers include scientists and others with lab experience who work in sterile conditions to grow the orchids from seeds no bigger than a speck. There are several racks full of bottle, each containing dozens of tiny orchids.

LEWIS: These have actually already been transplanted once. We do have some bottles that are just at the earliest stage. This is what they look like a month after the seeds have been planted.

ALLEN: They're just green blotches. Transferring them from one container to another as they grow is a bit like building a ship in a bottle. Seated at a lab bench, volunteer Mike Reeve uses forceps to move each little shoot, one by one.

MIKE REEVE: They've grown well enough they've used the nutrients in this medium. So we've made up new bottles of fresh medium with the nutrients, and we're transferring them into a fresh medium.

ALLEN: As they grow, the orchids are moved to a greenhouse. When they're large enough - beginning this spring - volunteers, arborists, and others will begin putting them into trees throughout Miami. Fairchild director Lewis says the Million Orchid Project is part of a new direction in conservation, working not just in natural areas but where people live. Some of the orchids, he says, won't survive. Others may be taken. But he's confident the project will re-establish some of Florida's most beautiful native plants back into the wild. Lewis says labs have already done this for other endangered species.

LEWIS: A classic example is the Venus flytrap that was hunted almost to extinction from the bogs of North Carolina. But now, there are micro-propagation labs producing them by the millions. You can buy them in supermarkets. No one has the incentive to go back and steal them from the wild, so the populations are actually recovering.

ALLEN: A million native plants established in local trees, Lewis hopes, will begin to do something similar for Florida's native orchids. Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.

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