Keeping a plant alive takes special care and a good level of patience. Keeping orchids alive and beautiful is tougher still.
From his lab at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, FIU biological sciences student Myles Covington is conducting research on orchids – one of the largest family of flowering plants in the world.
Covington is particularly interested in the endangered Dendrophylax lindenii, also known as the ghost orchid. As one of the only leafless orchids in the world and almost completely white, this plant got its name because at night, it’s flowers can look like a floating ghost.
The majority of Covington’s work with these unique species consists of propagation, or the growing of the orchids. He also works with their genetics, trying to piece together a plan to conserve the ghost orchids that are left.
“These two tasks in combination help to understand what can be done to increase their numbers and is a majority of the grey area when it comes to starting a conservation effort,” he said.
While the coronavirus pandemic briefly paused most work at Fairchild, workers watered Covington’s orchids on occasion.
“There was definitely water and heat stress just from how incredibly hot it gets, but now that the rain is back, it is getting much easier to manage,” he said.
Once Fairchild reopened, Covington got back to work.
His research doesn’t stop at Fairchild, however. He takes his knowledge of plants to FIU, where Covington studies how orchids manage the transition from moving to a flask where they are grown to their final destination in the humid outdoors.
Covington discovered he had a green thumb when, as a child, he grew plants with his family. To this day, he meticulously cares for more than 20 plants at home. Still, when he first enrolled at FIU, Covington was a pre-med student focused on medical biology.
He later rediscovered his roots and love for plants, changing his focus to plant biology and studying orchids under professor Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, director of the Agroecology Program. The program also helped Covington land a plant pathology internship with the USDA in South Carolina last summer.
“FIU really gave me a platform to turn my passion into a career,” he said.
Covington first worked as an intern in Fairchild’s microbiology program in 2016 before volunteering for the Million Orchid Project, which seeks to reintroduce native orchids throughout South Florida.
“Through the project we are able to get orchids from Fairchild out to schools and students as an educational program,” he said. “We have contracted with different communities and municipalities to plant the right native species in public areas for even more people to enjoy.”
His work also gained recognition in a recent interview with CBSMiami.
Covington plans to graduate from FIU in 2021 and attend graduate school to continue his studies in genomic research. He hopes his work will make others more appreciative of plants and generate a limitless supply of young, native orchids in the South Florida community.