Praying at the Orchid Altar

Botanical artist Mary Ruden has never lost a body part while traipsing through dense swampland deep in the Everglades' Fakahatchee Strand to hunt for orchids, but many of her colleagues have come close.

"One of the men I go there with was bitten by an alligator three inches away from his penis," she recounts, noting that the only serious injury she's incurred during a foliage foray is the poisonous spider bite that left a "battle scar" on her leg.

Adorned in hip boots and sidestepping gators, snakes, spiders, and bears, Ruden regularly treks through the Big Cypress Swamp near Naples to discover, monitor, photograph, and help pollinate the endangered plants. The Fakahatchee is home to more than 46 varieties of rare and beautiful orchids, some of them indigenous only to that particular patch of swamp.

Sans alligators, Ruden will share the beauty of the rare plants in their natural habitat from a safe spot behind a slide projector at the next meeting of the Florida Trail Association. The presentation will chronicle the artist's search for Florida's endangered orchids in the Fakahatchee, including the rare and hauntingly beautiful ghost orchid popularized in Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief.

It's illegal to take plants out of the Big Cypress Swamp State Preserve, but with rare orchids selling for thousands of dollars on the black market, poachers are pushing several varieties to near-extinction. And as environmental changes threaten to wipe out moths that pollinate particular orchid varieties exclusively, conservationists and botanists like Ruden often pollinate them by hand in an effort to perpetuate the magnificent flowers.

When hiking through swamps full of insect and animal predators, Ruden always accompanies a group of botanists and park rangers. But that's no guarantee of protection.

"We got lost the last time I was in there," she says. Without compasses or global positioning systems to orient themselves (each member of the party thought the others had the equipment), Ruden and other botanists wandered for hours after being separated from the rangers. The presence of 300-pound wild boars and black bears that can smell a crumb of food in a jacket pocket mean the dangers are all too real. "It was really frightening," Ruden says. "I thought, How badly do I really need to do this?"

Badly enough, it seems, because Ruden has no intention of stopping the trips, on which she takes photographs that inspire her paintings. "It's very exciting. You never know what to expect," she says. "When you get into orchids, it's so gripping. It's like religion."

Like most other living artists, Ruden sells her work for decent money but not a fortune. She supplements her income by illustrating textbooks and teaching painting.

"I know secretly people want me to die so my paintings will be worth more," she quips. "They hope I get my leg bitten off by an alligator."

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Karen Dale Wolman