Orchids love the Australian climate so much that more than 800 orchid species, most of them unique to our shores, grow in all kinds of locations all over Australia.
Queensland’s floral emblem, the delightfully named Dendrobium bigibbum, or Cooktown orchid, is well known for its striking shades of purple. The supertough Sydney rock orchid, endrobium speciosum, produces creamy yellow flower spikes in Spring and is loved by gardeners.
More familiar to gardeners in the southern states of Australia are the showy, intricately patterned Cymbidiums, the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) with its broad-winged petals that vary from white to deep purple and the wildly coloured Singapore orchid, once a buttonhole favourite.
Despite our climate and our huge variety of native plants, the bulk of commercially grown plants sold in Australia originate from southern China, South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Most cultivated orchids are epiphytes, which grow on trees in the tropics or sub-tropics. They prefer dappled light, high humidity, good airflow and limited nutrients. Rock orchids like similar conditions.
Terrestrial orchids (those growing in the ground) outnumber their tree-loving cousins by three to one but are difficult to cultivate. The exceptions are varieties of greenhood (Pterostylis) and onion (Microtis unifolia) orchids, which grow readily in pots or under a tree. Look for them in specialist nurseries.
Kerrie’s Blooms Bring Smiles at Willandra
Australian Unity’s Kerrie Smiles is leading her own orchid revolution.
Kerrie, the Assistant Manager at Willandra Retirement Community in Cromer in New South Wales, is getting many of the residents involved in her hobby.
“I remember being a kid and having a lady’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum) and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Kerrie says.
“They are such good value; better than cut flowers. And I love the people I have met through collecting and growing them.”
Kerrie has encouraged so many residents to grow the plants she has been able to host orchid shows at Willandra. She has also created a special garden where former residents’ orchids continue to bloom in their memory.
After a busy Spring, repotting bigger Cymbidiums and removing old rhizomes, Kerrie says Summer is about maintenance.
“I make up a diluted molasses mix and spray every two weeks. It keeps the bugs off and gives the leaves a sheen. I mix two tablespoons of molasses in one litre of water, using warm water to make sure it dissolves.”
Checking Summer light is also important; the sun is higher and shade will fall differently.
Top tips for healthy plants
- Good drainage is essential; use orchid mix, which comprises large chunks of bark
- Orchids like warm and humid environments, not hot and dry, or cold and wet
- Direct Summer sun can cause sunburn
- Know your orchid: Moth orchids prefer hot weather and low light; Cymbidiums don’t like temperatures over 25 degrees C but need more light; Dendrobiums like warm days and cool nights.
words Jane Canaway
photography Kerrie Smiles