HE­LEN RAZER

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Den­dro­bium kingianum, red mug.

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

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-me­tre­tall 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 pinebark 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.

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

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