Wherever there are rocks, rock lilies seem to appear. My first sighting was from a canoe on Brogo Dam about fifteen years ago, before my love affair with orchids began. There they were, creamy white against a sheer cliff face which dripped with moss and moisture. I had no idea what they were but I knew they were beautiful.
I encountered them again years later on a high ridge in the bush west of Bodalla. Leathery leaves on sheer rock face, much drier this time, and yes! there were flowers. Of course, as survivors they had put themselves out of reach on a steep cliff. But they made themselves known, and us hungry for more.
So we returned a week later, now a bit familiar with their habit and habitat, and took a bet on another ridge in the neighbourhood. We walked up a gentle slope through the reddish-orange trunks of angophera, and there they were – pseudobulbs, those thick stems typical of rock orchids, and racemes loaded with buds and occasional flower, all within easy reach of eyes and camera.
This was the beginning of a trek through treasures. The whole of that ridge was alive with rock orchids. Sometimes we needed to scramble and contort for the perfect view.
I managed climbs and balances I would not have believed myself capable of. I wanted to see and smell and take photos and peer down throats and delight in the maroon freckling and breathe in the spicy perfume.
After that visit, I considered myself an apprentice connoisseur of the rock lily. I recognised them immediately in paintings by Joseph Lycett and felt inordinately proud, given my usual poor recognition skills.
I found rock lilies many times over the years: on the rockface as I walked down the rock staircase into the rainforest patch around the lagoon at Bournda National Park in southern NSW;
on the tors called the Two Sisters as I drove along the highway between Bodalla and Narooma;
and as I walked through the bush to the top of Bald Rock in granite country in northern NSW.
When I visited Arthur Boyd’s studio at Bundanon with an old friend and fellow orchid afficianado we saw his painting The amphitheatre still hanging on the wall. A white snake slithers down the rock face, cropped trees lean every which way and rock lilies bloom. (The painting is reproduced here with the permission of Bundanon Trust.)
After a picnic under old European trees near the house, we strolled up the track towards the amphitheatre, detouring to visit a hut set in the middle of a slashed paddock. A snake slid out of the grass, an omen of orchids we hoped.
The amphitheatre was a grand place. The rock walls towered above us and the trees leaned in just as they did in Boyd’s painting.
There were great clusters of rock lilies everywhere.
Boyd and Lycett weren’t the only artists drawn to the rock lily. George Raper, a midshipman on the Sirius in the First Fleet, painted a watercolour of the rock lily, probably in 1789.
Ellis Rowan, that most wonderful of flower painters, also captured rock lilies in watercolour
and Margaret Preston celebrated them in a series of woodcuts.
Having seen such a luxuriance of rock lilies in the wild and out of the tip of the artist’s paintbrush and knife, it was an anti- climax to discover them cultivated in a manicured front yard in Oak Flats, and in amputated sprays on the table at a family celebration.
Addendum: As I was preparing this blog I discovered that the rock lily has undergone a name change. In David Jones’ Field guide (2000) it is Dendrobium speciosum. By his 2006 Complete Guide it has undergone a taxonomic segregation from Dendrobium and become Thelychiton speciosus. It is also known as both Sydney rock orchid and rock lily.
The National Library of Australia gave me permission to include
Ellis Rowan: Rock lily (Dendrobium speciosum) nla.pican 6723370
George Raper: Dendrobium (Rock lily) vn3579494
Thanks to my fellow orchid tragic for finding the Lycett images for me and for drawing my attention to George Raper.