For five years now we’ve been finding native orchids, terrestrial and epiphytic, on J’s block, in the Bodalla State Forest and around Potato Point. They inhabit dry sclerophyll hillsides recently burnt, rainforest remnants, slashed roadsides, open grassland and disturbed ground beside bush tracks. A number of different species often grow in a zone along a line of hillside. The rule seems to be if you find one species, look around and you may well spot another one.
Our tally grows slowly: we’ve spotted helmet orchids (2 species), bearded orchids, caladenias, greenhoods (2 species), hyacinth orchids, glossodia (only one sighting), donkey orchids (2 species), dockrillia, wasp orchids, mosquito orchids, rock orchids, tangle orchids, snake orchids, tiny tree orchids. I’m not much good at initial spotting. I’ve only ever found one species independently. But once somebody else discovers and attunes my eye, I become almost expert.
Even when you know an actual location, or an exact habitat you can overlook native orchids. On one memorable occasion, J was stomping around on the track near a moist patch of ferns saying “They’ve got to be here. This is ideal for helmet orchids. Why aren’t they here?”And suddenly, there they are, discreet and prolific, as if he’d stamped them into existence. (He seems to have this power. In the early days of our orchid acquaintance, when greenhoods were the only ones we knew, they appeared on a particular slope wherever J put his foot, as if his steps were giving birth to them.)
Capturing orchids on camera is a seperate challenge. It involves a lot of lying down. The ground is usually damp, rocky or steep. The sun leaches colour or intrudes a blue spot. The wind woggles delicate flowers into a frenzy. The canopy produces a dimness beyond my camera settings. The construction of an orchid poses problems with depth of field. Occasionally there’s a warning from my companion as I brace my feet so my lens can peer into the inner parts of an flower on a vertical hillside: “Be careful! I’ve seen adders in that pile of rocks.”
Spotting and photographing are the easy, pleasureable bits. Identifying and documenting are the hard work. I shudder at the sheer number of members of the Greenhood Alliance. I am delighted when the flowering season or the distribution cancel a particular contender. Betty and Don Wood’s local book (Flowers of the South Coast and ranges of New South Wales, vols 1-3, Wood’s Books, 1998) is the first port of call: their colour coding is a gentle introduction for a rank amateur. Two versions of David Jones monumental work on orchids are our ID bibles. My preference, for reasons of laziness and ignorance is the smaller one – A field guide to the native orchids of Southern Australia by David and Barbara Jones (Bloomings books, Victoria 2000). However D.L. Jones’ A complete guide to native orchids of Australia including the island territories (New Holland, 2006) provides detailed information and generates aspirations: “Oooh! I’d really like to spot that one!” When I’m stumped, I send off a photo to my friend R, who is knowledgeable, passionate about orchids and more meticulous than I in her search through Jones.
What is the attraction of encountering orchids in their native habitat? They are usually quite small, so their discovery is unexpected. There is the magic of nothing, and then something. I often try to recover the feel of that recognition moment but it’s located in a miniscule time spot from which it can’t be retrieved. I suspect there is an element of glamour too, deriving from the time when the only ones I knew were exotic, and they fulfilled a corsage role on special occasions.
Spotting a native orchid amongst the leaf litter or twining round a grey myrtle is a gift to beat any corsage, and an encounter makes an occasion of a pleasant stroll through the bush.