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January 2022

Beautiful Australian Native Orchids

With over 800 species and around ten new plants discovered each year, there will be an Aussie Native Orchid I’m sure you will fall in love with! For cultural and showing purposes, Australian Native Orchids are placed into one of two groups. The first being the most popular with home gardeners and collectors for their relative ease of care. Accounting for around 25% of the native orchid population, this group is known as the ‘Epiphyte Orchids’. These grow upon trees and rocks. In botanical terms, a plant growing upon rock void of soil is further classified as a ‘Lithophyte’.
Orchids 1

The second group, the ‘Terrestrial Orchids’ makes up the rest of the population, which is 75% and although this group is much larger, it isn’t always as well represented in collections as they can be a lot more difficult to cultivate, and many are extremely rare to begin with. As their name suggests, they grow upon the ground.

Central Coast Native Orchids
What’s even more exciting is discovering and growing our own local orchids. These will be easier to care for and the success rate of cultivation will also be higher in general because they are at home here. Still, you will need to be mindful of their ‘micro-environmental’ needs. Just because it is a plant that is native to this area, doesn’t mean it can grow as happily in a shaded mountain-area as it will on the windswept full-sun coast.

Here are a few locals you might like to try growing at your place:

Tree Spider Orchid (Dendrobium tetragonum) grows naturally in trees and upon rocks along small, shaded waterways. In your garden, you will need a semi-shaded, sheltered moist spot. Expect the highly fragrant, spider-like flowers to appear in the springtime.  You will need good air circulation, and although it can be grown in a pot, does a lot better when mounted in a tree or upon a board. Keep moist throughout the year but a lot drier in the winter months.

Ironbark Orchid (Dendrobium aemulum) likes to grow on Eucalyptus trees but if you are growing in pots, use a course, loose bark and make sure that you keep the roots covered. Flowers are a brilliant white that turn pink as they are spent. It’s a late winter through to early spring bloomer which delights with a divine soft fragrance. They are happy in the heat, prefer some humidity but also need very good airflow. Ironbark orchids prefer full sun but will tolerant some shade. Ensure the medium is kept moist but be aware that they don’t like to be overwatered at all. A free-flowing growing medium is super important with this orchid.

Rock Orchid (Dendrobium speciosum) would have to be my favourite orchid. It grows as both an epiphyte and a terrestrial and is rather drought and heat tolerant. They must have good air-circulation and you should give them semi-shade, but they will enjoy full sun from late autumn and then throughout the winter. Rock Orchid likes to grow in a course bark, pine bark is recommended, and watering should be monitored because they easily fall victim to root rot if water is left to pool. As a general guide: water every 3 to 4 days in summer, decreasing to once every week or 10 days in the colder months.

How to Grow Epiphytes & Lithophytes
First, find a tree! No tree or desire to grow your orchid in a tree? That’s ok, you can simply use old branches, sticks and even rocks artfully placed in pots. Under this structure, you will need a medium and that is not going to be soil. Your epiphytes will recoil in horror if you plant them in dirt so fill your pot with a chunky medium like bark chips, gravel or charcoal. There are specialty orchid growing mediums which are made up of these things and having a look at them will give you the idea or a solution.

This is rather general advice so make sure you seek out individual care tips for your species. Feed your orchid with a specialised orchid fertiliser but at half strength, (because this is a native plant), from mid spring until mid-autumn. You will find that most of this type of orchid need daily watering through the hottest summer months then a couple of times a week in mild weather, to once a fortnight through the winter months.

Got a tree? Maybe a big rock in the garden? Just tie your orchid to it. Follow the rest of the instructions I have given but also make sure the position suits the species you have chosen. One tip I will share with you, don’t tie that orchid to a Paperbark Tree or other bark shedder.

How to Grow Terrestrial Orchids
For the strong of heart and the patient, these orchids will give you a challenge. I like to enjoy them out there in the bush, but if you want to give them a go, a good starting point is the Donkey Orchid species (Duris spp.) of which there are many, but all have a pair of distinctive ear-like petals. These are an easier than most terrestrial orchid to grow. All terrestrial orchids will need a situation on par with most native plants and if growing in a pot, use 3 parts Australian Native Potting Mix to one part perlite to increase drainage. Many terrestrial orchids are deciduous and will die back to their underground tubers in summer and flower from very early spring. Water well during the growing period but most need you to stop completely when they die back.

Looking for More Native Orchid Adventures?
Go for a walk in our natural bushland and see if you can spot some Aussie Natives but only take photos, not flowers or plants. Not only is it illegal, but you will also be contributing to the extinction of our flora. If you are interested in exploring more about legally collecting and growing these beauties of the bush, get in touch with a local Native Orchid group. One that services the Central Coast is: the Australasian Native Orchid Society, Central Coast and they meet on the 2nd Wednesday of each month at the Narara Valley Community Centre. for more information. Also check out the umbrella Australasian Native Orchid Society Website: The Australasian Native Orchid Society is dedicated to ‘promoting the understanding and appreciation of orchids growing naturally not only in Australia, but also neighbouring New Zealand, New Guinea and the adjacent western Pacific.’ The society members enjoy a type of plant-fellowship that includes breeding of species and sub-species, shows, culture, education, and field work.

Guide to Native Orchids of NSW and ACT

By Lachlan M. Copeland, Gary N. Backhouse
ISBN: 9781486313686 Published by CSIRO January 2022
Orchid book
Even if you never grow an orchid in your life, this book is for all the plant curious out there. With 582 species along with over 600 stunning photographs to discover within its pages this is an invaluable field guide to an often-overlooked plant out there in the Australian wilds. As a garden writer, I can attest to the fact that many are not familiar with the native orchids of our land and don’t recognise what they may come across. Come and explore these beauties from all environments, even the mysterious underground orchids. Personally, I think every home should have this guide and I might be right as it seems to be selling out quickly!

You can plant the following now: Culinary herbs, beans, beetroot, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chicory, cress, cucumber, endive, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, marrow, mustard, onions (spring), parsnip, potato tubers, radish, rhubarb crowns, salsify, silverbeet, swede, sweetcorn, turnips, zucchinis, ageratum, alyssum, boronia, begonia, calendula, cleome, cyclamen, forget-me-not, nasturtium, pansy, poppy (Iceland), stock, verbena, vinca, viola, wallflower

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 - 10am live every Saturday on CoastFM963. She is also co-host of @MostlyAboutPlants a weekly botanical history & gardening podcast with Victoria White.

Send your gardening questions, events, and news to: [email protected]
This article first appeared in Central Coast Newspapers ( The Coast News and The Chronicle)