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Cyrtopodium punctatum, known as the cigar, beeswarm or cowhorn orchid, is a medium-large orchid found in remote warm to hot swamps in southern Florida (e.g. Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades), through the West Indies, and from arid SE Sonora to Argentina, up to altitudes of 1400 meters (4600 feet).  When undisturbed, the plant grows to an impressive size, usually as an epiphyte attached low on the trunks of cypress and buttonwood trees with its white aerial roots, but also growing on logs, stumps, rocks, soil or boulders.  From March through May, three-foot- (one-meter-) long branched inflorescences bear hundreds of showy flowers, a mix of purple, red, orange and yellow ruffled sepals and petals, attracting bumblebee pollinators with their fragrance. 

The cowhorn/cigar orchid gets its common names from its pseudobulbs (swollen stems).  The size and shape of unshucked corn cobs, the pseudobulbs look like cigars or cow horns wrapped in papery sheaths.  The plant sheds its leaves annually in winter, leaving the pseudobulbs very visible and also forming a sharp pointed spike where they break off at the mid-vein.  Juices from the pseudobulbs can be made into a bookbinding paste and have also been used medicinally in Cuba and Brazil (Pfahl).

Like most Florida native orchids, the population of C. punctatum in Florida is rare in the wild, found mostly in remote areas.  Though its seedpods produce millions of seeds, the likelihood of germination is extraordinarily slim and small populations are rarely able to continue on their own. Cyrtopodium punctatum is threatened by habitat loss and collection and it is on the Florida state endangered species list.  It is also listed on CITES Appendix II - Trade controlled to avoid use incompatible with species survival.  Several projects focus on restoring cowhorn orchid populations including the “million orchid program” at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden which targets C. punctatum and four other native orchid species for copious laboratory micropropagation in an effort to re-establish the species into urban parts of its native distribution (a complement to other existing orchid reintroduction projects focused on natural areas).

(Subrahmanyam 2008; Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 2014; Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden 2012; Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2000; Pfahl, 2014)

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© Dana Campbell

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