Intent on growing native orchids, the author finds the only club that she wants to have her as a member. By Helen Razer.

Cultivating native orchids

Dendrobium kingianum,  red mug.
Dendrobium kingianum, red mug.

To cultivate plants is to cultivate despair. If you’ve given your hands to the dirt for more than a season, you already know this very well. Certainly, there are moments of easy bliss – spring’s dependable anemone; summer’s generous peppers. But these serve largely to sustain the gardener who is otherwise battling weeds, grubs, soil and death. So much death.

I still can’t look at a picture of the Chatham Islands forget-me-not – a blue New Zealand megaherb that looks as a hydrangea would if it had taken a very long turn at an upscale Polynesian spa – without shame. I failed four of them. Then, when the fifth lay dying, I banned myself from the cultivation of any species with which I had not shared at least six months of life. I would stick with what little I knew and introduce no new genus to the earth until the casualty rate slowed.

Well, I have violated probation. And I was seduced in the most predictable way. Human hunters and insect pollinators sacrifice their lives to the same enormous family of flowers that now tempt me. Heiresses have offered it their every waking instant. Botanists have actual stand-up brawls over its taxonomy. Charles Darwin spent decades researching a book in its name, Orchidaceae. There can be no resistance to the orchid.

What there can be, though, is specialisation. Actually, for the gardener, there must be. This ancient plant appears in all parts of the world save for Antarctica and the Arctic, and nature has produced – although this is a matter for hot debate – up to 30,000 species. Industrialists and hobbyists have produced many more hybrid and line-bred beauties. Such a diverse family of plants has a diverse range of needs and if you’d care to avoid going completely potty over the matter of potting mix, you’d best decide.

It’s up to you, of course, but I do urge you to consider cultivating a group of the Australians. By these means, you can elect to stay hyperlocal with your plant choices – there are orchids from all states – and you can do your bit to turn the silly notion that we have no showy native flowers on its head. You’ll also find yourself making exchanges that do not always occur in the marketplace. Due, no doubt, to our horticultural cringe, many Australian orchids are yet to be transformed from plants into commodities. Much of the time, you just can’t buy them.

Sure, there are Australian orchid fairs and shadow transactions online. A small number of nurseries will send you these beauties by mail. Much of the time, however, both Australian orchids and the barely known secrets of their cultivation are given, not paid for. Volunteer-run organisations such as the Australasian Native Orchid Society (ANOS) might not view themselves as living opposition to the commodity form. I was, nonetheless, so taken with their collective approach to cultivation –“Come over to my house this afternoon. I’ll give you some medium and a few starter orchids. I’ll show you how to build a little orchid house” – I joined.

I had taken the decision to cultivate Australian Dendrobium kingianum – which is a lithophyte, or a plant that grows on rocks. Actually, the decision was taken for me. A friend who knew of my interests in both plant cultivation and the work Capital – which happens to begin with a critique of the commodity – gave me the example Karl Marx. This little plant is the result of 1970s line-breeding by a group of chaps in the mid-north coast region of New South Wales who strove to produce a deep red descendant of the pink rock orchid.

This tickled me. I had hoped to secure some instructions for the plant’s care, and perhaps a correct genealogical chart for the breed, which remains, despite best red efforts, hot pink. I saw that Dr Peter Adams, ANOS’s vice-president and the editor of its journal, The Orchadian, was an internationally regarded Dendrobium scholar, with a special interest in kingianum. So, on the off-chance that this biochemist, breeder and author of the work A Guide to Dendrobium of Australia was available, I sent him my phone number by email.

Three hours later – 30 minutes of which was spent in intense conversation about the correct treatment and grade of radiata pine to use to pot my then solitary native orchid – I had become a collector, and a member of the Australasian collective.

Adams, who has worked with London’s Kew Gardens on several orchid publications, perhaps knows as much about the evolutionary and cultivational histories of Australian native orchids as any living authority. As to the question of my small friend Karl, however, Adams was unable to say if Wauchope schoolteacher Harry Klose, who named the plant, was even a member of the Communist Party. He does confirm, however, that Karl’s line-breeding chart has siblings and offspring called “Little Lenin”, “Trotsky” and “Pommy Shop Steward” He also confirms what I already knew and feared: orchid cultivation is not always a straightforward matter.

Not all native orchids are fussy. In fact, one of the biggest and showiest, Dendrobium speciosum – which can be both lithophyte or epiphyte, a plant that grows on other plants – is considered by many experienced growers to be a bit of a doddle in several climate zones. Adams, who attended the yearly Speciosum Spectacular in Kempsey this month, becomes far less a rational man of science than a giddy aesthete when he describes the masses of cream, purple-throated blooms borne by the racemes of this underappreciated plant, once an occasional food source for the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, doubtless a source of annual delight.

Those in zones that are not blessed with mild conditions will be unable to grow the giant outdoors. Those who acquire orchid-fever probably won’t care and will build a plant house to contain the one-metre-wide native anyhow.

You can, however, keep it simple and contain your passion in containers filled with orchid medium. Do it in a little DIY orchid house built for a couple of bucks, or, depending on your climate zone and your orchids, in a semi-protected east-facing part of your garden. Adams, who long ago filled nearly half a Victorian hectare with Australians of rock, tree and ground-dwelling type, is, of course, very particular about potting and care. Of the smaller Dendrobiums that I will build as my collection, however, he says to use New Zealand-sourced speciality pine mix in a tight pot, a small amount of pelletised chook poo as fertiliser and very sparse water in winter when my plants will be dormant.

Your chosen flower – if in Brisbane, I dare you to overlook the almost vulgar beauty of the two-metre-tall Phaius tankervilleae or swamp orchid – may have quite different needs. That these needs are not widely known is the greatest hurdle, possibly the greatest gift, to cultivation of the native orchid. There are, as Adams tells me, small-time vendors and trade events. “But there is no general marketing. You won’t find the plants for sale in larger centres. And when you do buy them, as many do, on eBay, they will not often come with reliable instructions for care.”

Later, he wants me to have some of his Dendrobiums, and will not consider a refusal. “When can you come over? I can’t give these things away.” He wants to remind me that I can grow them on windowsills, on balconies and in protected parts of a yard. He wants me to know that in almost any region of Australia, I could have one orchid blooming every single month.

This is what fuels our small native orchid societies: those productive human impulses that the market can incline us to forget. Society enthusiasts may line-breed varieties, and will almost always divide their plants and thrust them into the hands of newcomers, along with instructions and products for their care. Which is not, at all, what I had been led to expect about orchid people, usually represented in the popular culture as either solo daring hunters – a practice that is, in any case, unlawful and unethical – or inheritors of great wealth disinclined to leave the hothouse. Australian native orchid people are very communalist.

The problem is, says Adams, that newcomers have been about as rare in recent years as Caladenia xanthochila, Victoria’s endangered yellow-lip spider orchid. Adams’ son, who acquired his enthusiasm for the plant family as a child, is one of two ANOS members yet to reach retirement age.

The vice-president, also enamoured since childhood as he roamed the then-untouched bushland that bounded his family peach farm in Melbourne’s Warrandyte, is as eager to pass on the society’s uncommodified love of orchids to younger people as he is to give you some pine-bark tips. “We’re on the Facebook, you know.”

Although the clubs that will have me as a member are also those I have most stubbornly refused to join, this season I will make an exception. Of course, even with a society’s guidance, I know some of my little plants will fail. But this despair is part of gardening. The cultivation of community through this despair, however, is cause for hope. I’m sure my little Karl Marx would approve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2017 as "Orchid moments".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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