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An Afternoon with the Orchid Hunters

Shhh....Orchid Hunters at work

This week I was lucky enough to join Master Orchid Hunter Peter Fehre on an excursion while he was showing other enthusiasts around. Three of them had specifically come down from the North West Coast to see some of our Spider Orchids. Peter has been photographing orchids for about eleven years and  knows each one personally. He knows exactly where they live and when they are likely to be in flower. This is just as well as I walked over this whole reserve last week and only saw a couple of Leopard Orchids and the tiniest Greenhood, despite having a map. 

My first Spider Orchid - Caladenia Caudata

Unlike Western Australian orchids some of which practically jump into your face – see for example, last year's sun orchids, Tasmanian orchids are small, rare and discreet like tiny jewels.  One species or another is likely to be in flower at most times of the year, though late spring seems to be the best. At least two hundred species are known to exist in Tasmania. What makes this field exciting is that it is still in flux. As with fungi, as more people take notice and get involved, more and more species are coming to light. Even today, there is such variation among the Caladenia Caudata from various shades of crimson and cream through to a bright yellow, my fellow orchid hunters are already wondering whether the latter could in fact be a separate subspecies. We will wait and see. 

A double Caladenia Caudata

 So far today they have already seen about a dozen orchids elsewhere, but there are many more here.  Still, Peter is disappointed that some of his ‘regulars’ have disappeared. Some of them have not come back after burning off. Others have accidentally been scooped up in the course of council work and still others have gone for reasons that are less clear. Global warming? Too many dog walkers or careless feet? Orchids work in mysterious ways. Some can only flourish in the presence of a particular fungus. Others rely on highly specific insects. Take one or the other away and they die. Despite the many cultivars, wild orchids do not do well if transplanted. Although experiments are underway at the Royal Botanic Gardens which are celebrating a rare success story, wild orchids are best admired where they have chosen to live.

Each orchid does seem to have a distinct personality

Humans have long been fascinated by orchids. They are one of the oldest plants – about 80 million years old according to the fossil record, and can be found in most habitats from the Arctic to the deserts, with the exception of Antarctica and the odd recently formed coral island. Currently about 26,000 species have been identified globally and they are also one of the most prolific plant forms. As well as being appreciated for their beauty and their symmetry, they have variously been associated with healing and fertility, not the least because their root structure bears similarity to the male scrotum. In the Victorian era orchids represented wealth and a touch of the exotic while to the more repressed the orchid's reproductive parts were considered blatantly sexual, but then so did chair legs and piano ‘limbs.’ And did you know that the common flavouring Vanilla actually comes from an orchid?

A yellow double

If you would like to see what the distribution of orchids around the world looks like or what it's like where you live, click here  You can see that while obviously far more prolific in the tropics, Tasmania does quite well. My photos are just to whet your appetite. If you want to see some truly amazing orchid photography you should look at some of Peter's work on Flickr or on the Tasmanian Native Orchids  Facebook site and yes, he has given up his day job to devote his time to this.

Many thanks Peter and friends for a lovely afternoon, also to Geoff Carle another accomplished   Orchid Hunter and macro photographer, who joined us later and gave me some great tips afterwards for getting better results from my camera.

It's not easy being an orchid hunter AND a good photographer. Geoff carries a cutdown polystyrene container to reduce the wind and the glare. Jill carries a white umbrella for the same purpose. Everyone seems to have elaborate photographic gear with big lenses and tripods and you do have to be prepared to get down and dirty. Patience is a virtue too, but at least they don't run or fly away.