Larry Richardson was talking away, quoting philosophers and Senegalese poets, but something in the wilderness distracted him.

He stopped in mid-sentence and jumped nimbly to the ground from the heights of an oversize Jeep that he calls a swamp buggy. Then he was down on his hands and knees, pressing his nose toward a tuft of pine needles and taking a big whiff.

"Panther scrape," he announced, bounding back into the swamp buggy and pressing forward into the pines and palmettos he knows so well.

There would be other distractions, other stops, other chopped-off thoughts in his infectious stream of consciousness. Wild turkey feathers, the droppings of some unknown creature, a flutter of wings in the cypress trees -- everything is a clue.

Richardson, a biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, came to this 26,000-acre preserve just outside Naples, Fla., 13 years ago to make sure that the disappearing Florida panther had a place to thrive. But he soon found a passion that consumes him just as much: orchids.

He talks about them all the time. Orchids and panthers. Panthers and orchids. It might seem like an off-the-wall combination, Richardson acknowledged, but it really isn't. Both are barometers of the health of the troubled Florida wetlands, he said.

His affinity for orchids has grown into a plan to save them from the effects of encroaching development and poaching in the Fakahatchee Swamp, which extends well beyond the refuge. Richardson, 48, isn't just studying the problem, he's actually pollinating some varieties himself when their natural pollinators -- usually bees or moths -- disappear.

Packing a pair of tweezers, he pushed his canoe into the swamp to collect grains of pollen about half the size of a pinhead from orchids on the west side of the refuge and paddle them back to the east side, where he inserted them into some of the rarest species in existence. One of his favorites, the cigar orchid, resembles a bouquet of hand-rolled stogies until it pushes out a spray of crinkly red-and-gold dotted flowers.

"Should I sit back and let nature take its course?" Richardson asked rhetorically. "We wrote the tale of doom for the cigar orchid. Am I playing God by putting them back?"

Richardson's handiwork is all over McBride Pond, a bog at the northern end of the Fakahatchee, where streaks of sunlight dance across century-old cypress trees and clingy vines wrap themselves around spindly pop ash and pond apple trees. Richardson straps immature orchids to the trees with bright strands of tape, always placing them well above the water line, but not so high that they won't feel the heat generated by the swamp at night. The tape stays until they can hold on by themselves.

Richardson's canoe nosed through patches of cutgrass. "Wicked stuff," he said.

He talked about "the orchids I've met" as if they were people.

"They have such a difficult life history," he said. "To get an orchid to survive is a feat in itself."

Richardson has seen entire tree limbs sawed through by poachers to collect rare orchids that can fetch thousands of dollars apiece. New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean examined the cultish world of orchid poachers in her book "The Orchid Thief," which inspired the new film "Adaptation."

But Richardson places his hopes on the chain-link fence that surrounds the refuge, a barrier to keep the panthers off the highways and the poachers away from the orchids.

Richardson's little laboratory is behind the fence, too. He cultivates petri dishes of fungus, knowing that orchids can feed off the fungus and grow. He trades notes with a graduate student and fungus expert at the University of Florida, Scott Stewart, and dreams of a time when he can place hundreds of new orchids in the wild.

He's had other plans go awry before; his work, after all, is a process of discovery. There was the time that he tried to capture deer for a study by shooting nets from a helicopter; it turned out the choppers couldn't get close enough to make the idea work. But the orchid plan is a winner, he said. He's already seeing positive results.

"I want people to understand and fall in love with native orchids," Richardson said. "If you're in love with something, you can't bear to lose it."

Biologist Larry Richardson is passionate about saving Florida's orchids.