The return of the orchid: Carl Lewis ’95 brings the flower back to its native south Florida
Take a walk down a busy street in south Florida and you might notice a resurgence of wild orchids if you look up in the trees. You can thank Carl Lewis ’95 for that.
Lewis, the director of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables, Fla., has started the Million Orchid Project, an initiative to bring orchids back to their native south Florida.
“The project represents a new direction in conservation, restoring rare plants to cities, not just natural areas,” said Lewis. “The strategy is to plant them on trees where people live, work and commute.” The project has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in several national and international news outlets.
When railroads first came to Florida in the late 1800s, the native plants were among the first resources exploited, Lewis told NPR. Now, after more than a century of logging and harvesting, it’s extremely rare to find them growing in the wild.
Lewis said he developed the orchid revival idea from a similar urban orchid restoration project in Singapore led by the Singapore Botanical Gardens. The hope is that the orchids will take off and naturally reproduce on their own, as they have in Singapore.
Reintroducing a species is a large undertaking, but Lewis has had help. He has enlisted dedicated volunteers, including high school students from the Terra Environmental Research Institute in Miami, to help raise and transplant thousands of orchids. The city of Coral Gables has also joined in, budgeting $30,000 a year for the next five years to restore the orchid’s prominence in public spaces. The city’s goal is to eventually have 250,000 native orchids living in the wild.
Lewis said he hopes to continue partnerships with other cities and organizations in south Florida to support the initiative. “The community will play a large part in the reintroduction,” he said.
Lewis’ interest in plant life began at an early age. He knew he wanted to study botany in college, and came to tour Connecticut College because of its excellent reputation in the field. Lewis told his parents to wait in the car while he checked out the botany labs and greenhouse. As luck would have it, he bumped into William A. Niering, a world-renowned botany professor and director of the Arboretum, for whom the College’s Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment is now named. The two talked for hours, while Lewis’s parents waited patiently. He applied early decision.
Lewis majored in botany, graduated with honors and was awarded the Certificate of Special Achievement from the Botanical Society of America, which honors the most outstanding graduating seniors in the plant sciences.
Much like his mentor, the late Niering, Lewis’s career has been focused on conservation efforts. Prior to launching the orchid project, he was part of an effort to conserve palms on Pacific and Caribbean islands. His research on plant evolution and conservation has been published in multiple science publications and books.
Lewis is also an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, where he teaches molecular biology, systematics and evolution of tropical plants.
Lewis is the son of Kelly Emeritus Professor of Chemistry David Lewis, who served as dean of the faculty and interim president during his time at the College. David Lewis joined the College in 1996 after his son’s graduation and retired in 2013.