An orchid obsession

Marie Ballagh at work near the Orokonui Ecosanctuary visitor centre. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Marie Ballagh at work near the Orokonui Ecosanctuary visitor centre. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Potato orchid. Photo: Marie Ballagh.
Potato orchid. Photo: Marie Ballagh.
Spider orchid. Photo: Maree Johnstone.
Spider orchid. Photo: Maree Johnstone.
Greenhood orchid. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Greenhood orchid. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Green bird orchid. Photo: Rob Ballagh.
Green bird orchid. Photo: Rob Ballagh.
Easter orchid. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Easter orchid. Photo: Alyth Grant.
Bamboo orchid. Photo: Marie Ballagh.
Bamboo orchid. Photo: Marie Ballagh.

Marie Ballagh has developed a new passion since starting her volunteer work at Orokonui Ecosanctuary: the native orchids growing there.

The regenerating environment at Orokonui Ecosanctuary can present  surprises even before you go through the fence.

As we left the visitor’s centre after a morning pulling weeds, I looked around the base of the big cabbage tree and noticed the shiny new green leaves of the green bird orchid, Simpliglottis cornuta.

Soon the plants will have small flowers that are the same green as the leaves, with a hint of yellow and tiny little "eggs" on the lower petal. Further up the path to the car park there are some green leaves that look similar to spring onion leaves. These are the common onion orchid, Microtis unifolia.

These leaves will grow a flower spike of tiny green flowers. Nearby is a clump of green leaves of the sun orchid, Thelymitra sp. In midsummer this should have purple flowers.

All of these orchids have arrived of their own accord and come up each spring in what seems like an inhospitable clay bank, but they love it. As we have weeded around the ponds we have found more green bird orchids and sun orchids that have arrived without assistance. The only thing we have done to support their cause has been  some protective cages  below the visitor centre, as the rabbits and hares find them tasty.

The orchid I first saw at Orokonui was the easter orchid (Earina autumnalis), in full bloom, cascading over a rock near the aviary. A guide had sent me down a track and at the end was a big rock draped with a mat of straight green leaves topped with a mass of tiny white sweetly scented flowers.

It sent me off to check various books and websites to learn what to look for, and then out into the bush to find the plants.

This is how  obsession begins.

What intrigues me  about New Zealand orchids is how unlike their big and showy tropical relatives they are. Our orchids’ flowers are often small, even tiny, and the colours are not dramatic. Some are even ugly, until you get to know them. They may be growing above in the trees, or at ground level.

Finding orchids has meant walking along the tracks very slowly, taking a long hard look at the perching plants above to distinguish between fern leaves and the straight, strappy orchid leaves of the bamboo orchid (Earina mucronata), which flowers in December, with long sprigs of small creamy yellow flowers.

I have found them above the Tui Track near the big macrocarpa trees and on trees overhanging the stream on the lower part of the Robin Valley Track, where they can make the branch look as if it has a punk haircut.

I alternate between looking up  and peering into the undergrowth to find the terrestrial orchids. In some damp places on the Robin Valley Track you can spot the heart-shaped leaves of the spider orchid (Nematoceras sp). These are in flower at the moment, but their flowers are hard to spot as they blend into the leaves so well. On the Kaka Track, on the way to the viewing platform, are clumps of greenhood orchids (Pterostylis sp). They are easy to spot, being green and white, and have spiky petals poking out each side and down the centre.

Another December bloomer was found by volunteers working near the rare plants garden: the potato orchid (Gastrodia cunninghamii), a very strange plant with a creamy-brownish spike of bell-shaped flowers without any leaves or green parts.

They get their nutrition from fungi and have large underground tubers that Maori used to eat. They do not  flower every year, but I will be looking this year, just in case.

While most of the orchids we notice are found at ground level, the perching orchids are sometimes brought down by wind gusts. A ranger once showed me a fallen branch covered with a network of small leaves, Drymoanthus flavus. It grows high in the canopy, so we only see them if they come down as windfall. We dream that Orokonui may one day be able to build a viewing tower so that we can see such treasures, and the lush canopy itself.

One day.

- Marie Ballagh is a volunteer at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, one of a team that tends the plantings around the visitor centre.

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