The butterfly orchid plant (Encyclia tampensis) grows native from central Florida southward to the heart of the Everglades. The orchid also grows in the Bahamas and parts of Cuba. An epiphyte orchid, it grows in the swamplands on mangroves, oaks, pines and pond apple trees in full sunlight or partial shade. The plant is a protected species in Florida, where it is illegal to harvest or harm the plants.
John Torrey discovered the butterfly orchid in 1846 growing near Tampa Bay, Florida. The orchid was named Epidendrum tampense in 1847. The name would later be changed by John Kunkel Small in 1914 to Encyclia tampensis, because too many varying orchids belonged to the previous classification.
The butterfly orchid grows up to 1 1/2 feet in height. It produces two to three straplike leaves that often measure up to 1 foot in length. When the orchid grows in shade its leaves grow longer. Flowering commences from spring into fall. Flowers are borne upon long, slender stems. Each flower measures 1 1/2 inches across. Flowers appear a yellowish-green shade, a brownish color with white highlights and often a creamy white color. The petals have a lavender stripe or small spot. The plant grows from green pseudobulbs attached to the tree's bark.
The flowers produce a sweet, honey-like fragrance that is dispersed at approximately noon each day. As the heat and humidity climbs in the swamp the fragrance becomes more pronounced to attract the attention of active afternoon bees so that pollination can occur. The further south in Florida the butterfly orchid grows the more reminiscent the flower's smell becomes of sweet chocolate. The more intense heat and higher humidity level affects the flower's scent.
The butterfly orchid grows well in full sunlight or partial shade. It grows in swampland and mangrove forests close to saltwater but it does not tolerate saltwater spray. It requires the protection of the lush swamp foliage and tree canopies to survive in such areas or the ongoing salt spray would kill the plant.
Following flowering, the butterfly orchid produces a podlike capsule that contains tiny seeds. The capsule cracks open to reveal three compartments, and the seeds are dispersed by the wind. The orchid can readily survive outside the swampland and is easily cultivated, which makes its survival in the wild perilous because it is often illegally harvested for the plant trade, according to the Institute for Regional Conservation.