Orchids – Hidden Gems of the Trail

Originally published in the Trailwalker magazine: Spring 2018, Sep 2018

King Spider, the most common spider orchid
Purple Cockatoo Orchid
Pink Sun Orchid
Wallflower Donkey orchids
Bearded orchids
The rare Potato Orchid... some might even call it ugly

James Wenzel advises us to slow down on the trail and add orchid-spotting to the pleasures of bushwalking.

We all love walking for different reasons, whether we’re viewing stunning landscapes, observing interesting wildlife, or doing it purely for fitness and relaxation. I have added a new reason to go walking to my list over the last few years, especially in spring, and that is searching for native orchids.

Sometimes we are that busy looking about we walk past and miss some of South Australia’s most interesting flowers. Instead of looking down only to make sure you don’t trip over that rock or tree root, slow down and pay attention to the ground around you. You may be rewarded by spotting a native orchid.

We are lucky to have over 250 variations of native orchids here in South Australia and you can find different varieties growing all year round. I have found winter and spring are the best times for spotting the more common ones.

If you go walking in any of our national or conservation parks in September you are bound to spot a King Spider Orchid, one of the most common and most stunning, in my opinion, of the spider orchids. When you see them it is a sign that the bush is in good health. Some varieties are dependent on an associated fungus in the soil for them to survive, which is why they can be hard to grow in captivity. If the land has been cleared or heavily ploughed they may never grow again. Most of them rely on tiny insects like native flies, native wasps, ants and a fungus gnat, a tiny mosquito-like insect, for pollination. Some can also self-pollinate.

Any of our conservation parks close to Adelaide such as Belair, Cleland, Morialta, Black Hill and Anstey’s Hill are prime spots for spotting native orchids. I frequent Black Hill and head back to the same spots at different times every year to see the same orchids blooming.

Also patches of bushland and even roadsides can be good locations while you’re walking the Heysen Trail. One of my favourite finds was a Spider Orchid that we found on an End-to-End walk not far from Moralana Gorge Road in the Flinders Ranges.

Orchids can camouflage quite well so they can take some spotting. The alien-looking Greenhoods are a good example of this; you will see one and look at it and the next thing you know there is a whole carpet of them. This is why when we leave the trail we should be careful where we are treading. You could be standing on a rare orchid! On the other hand the Donkey, Purple Cockatoo or Pink Sun orchids can be bright and stand out, which makes them quite easy to spot. Quite a few orchids are not flashy, like the rare Potato Orchid. Some might say they are even ugly. But remember all native orchids are protected and picking the flowers or digging up the whole plant is illegal. Some can be quite rare and endangered because of loss of natural bushland.

Identifying some orchids can be a bit difficult because they are so small and delicate. There can also be different variations such as albinos to make it that bit trickier. Looking at the leaves can be a good identification tool. I find taking photos is a good means for identifying orchids because you can look and study them at home. Remember to take a photo of the leaves to help with the identification process.

You don’t have to be an expert; amateurs can enjoy them too. One of the references that I have used is an online document called Common native orchids of the Adelaide Hills, published by Natural Resources, Government of South Australia. It has some great photos. NOSSA, the Native Orchid Society of South Australia, has a free eBook to download called Orchids of South Australia. And the reference book It’s Blue with Five Petals – Wildflowers of the Adelaide Region by Ann Prescott also is a good resource.

So if you’re a walker or photographer like me and enjoy our native flora, on your next walk slow down and check out the ground around you. You might get addicted to native orchids too.

James Wenzel completed the Heysen Trail in 2016 with E2E6 and is a walk leader with E2E12.