Wild About Native Orchids: Q&A with Lachlan Copeland
Many of us know orchids as elegant houseplants or showstopper potted plants in your garden, but did you know that Australia is home to around 1900 species of wild orchids – 30 per cent of which can be found in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. And in the last five years there have been more than 20 orchid species newly described from this region alone.
To help us delve into the beautiful and sometimes bizarre world of orchids, we asked Lachlan Copeland, co-author of Guide to Native Orchids of NSW and ACT, to tell us more about Australia’s stunning and surprising native orchids.
How did your interest in orchids begin?
I first took an interest in orchids in the mid 1990s as I loved getting into the bush and observing and photographing all living things. I scored my first job as a botanist in 1996 and have been lucky enough to work on orchids for much of the past 25 years. All plants are of interest to me, but native orchids have always been my favourite, and probably always will be. I often get asked “why orchids” and to be honest I can’t even give a straight answer… it’s something that’s now just ingrained in me, I guess. The cool thing is that I know I’m in good company as there are so many other wonderful orchid enthusiasts who also share my passion.
What inspired you to write Guide to Native Orchids of NSW and ACT?
I was lucky enough to start learning about orchids at the same time as the last comprehensive book came out in 1996. It was a beaut little field guide by Tony Bishop and I learnt a great deal from it. After 25 years of further research though, and countless name changes and new species, I could see a real need to publish a new, totally up-to-date book that would appeal to both amateur wildflower enthusiasts and professional botanists alike. All naturalists crave comprehensive field guides with good photos and distribution maps and current knowledge. Other states have some excellent orchid field guides so NSW was long overdue.
It was also thanks to my good friend Gary Backhouse, who first suggested we team up to write the book. Gary has an excellent eye for detail and has produced fantastic books about orchids from elsewhere, so I knew working closely with him would ultimately lead to a good product.
What is so special about the native orchids of NSW and ACT? Are there any particularly fascinating species?
Where do I start? We have such a diverse range of orchids including some of the world’s tiniest species to some large epiphytes weighing many kilograms. We are fortunate to be in a cross-over zone where we have an amazing diversity of spectacular ground orchids in temperate zones as well as a good diversity of epiphytes in wetter, subtropical areas. The north-eastern corner of NSW has some amazing epiphytes on trees and lithophytes on rocks. I feel the need to show off and also point out that NSW has more native orchids than any other state in Australia, something we NSW locals should be proud of.
We have two amazing underground orchids that spend their entire life cycle in the soil and leaf litter and these Rhizanthella species are world-famous amongst orchid enthusiasts. NSW also has two climbing orchids, one of which can reach 10 metres tall in a single year’s growth. Pseudovanilla foliata has a large number of big showy flowers and really is one of the most spectacular orchids in Australia. Many of our spider orchids and leek orchids are not only attractive but are poorly known and rarely seen. Some of them may only flower the year after a fire, so enthusiasts might only get a chance to see them once in a decade.
What’s your most memorable orchid find?
I’ve travelled far and wide in search of orchids, but strangely enough my most memorable orchid discovery happened on my own property, not more than 80 metres from my bedroom window! I’m fortunate enough to have an extremely rare orchid that appears to only grow on my place in an area of less than 100 square metres. After three years of surveys, it’s still known from fewer than 50 plants. Danhatchia copelandii is very distinctive and mysterious and to have such a wonderful orchid only on my place is a privilege and something that I take great pride in. Seeing some of Lord Howe Island’s endemic orchids has also been a highlight and these are technically in NSW, but nothing beats having some cool orchids in your own rainforest patch.
Do you have any concerns about conservation?
I sure do. I’ve worked in the conservation of rare and threatened plants for over 20 years now and in that relatively short time-frame have seen many orchids disappear. They are threatened by land clearing, illegal poaching by collectors, habitat degradation by introduced weeds, overgrazing and trampling, frequent fires and a range of other things. I do what I can to help conserve them, but the truth is many of our plants and animals are in serious decline and in desperate need of further study. I hope that our book will help raise awareness of our native orchids but also stimulate further interest and research, both of which will be needed for their long-term conservation.
Can citizen scientists play a role in this field?
It’s amazing how many new orchid species have been discovered in the past five years by amateur enthusiasts, casual bushwalkers and citizen scientists. Lots of folks now take quality photographs of native orchids and post them on social media and this helps professionals better understand the distribution and abundance of native orchids. We actually owe a great deal of our current knowledge to these citizen scientists who are so passionate about biodiversity and do their bit to help out. So, a BIG yes to that question.
Dr Lachlan Copeland is a botanist specialising in the taxonomy and conservation of rare or threatened plants. Over 25 years, he has discovered several new orchid species and published more than 45 scientific papers relating to native orchids and other plants of conservation significance.
Like most orchid enthusiasts, he loves nothing more than getting out into the bush and finding and photographing native orchids in their natural habitat.
Lachlan Copeland and Gary Backhouse are the authors of Guide to Native Orchids of NSW and ACT.
This comprehensive guide describes the 582 species of wild orchids that occur in NSW and the ACT and includes over 600 photographs, as well as distribution maps for almost all species.