Growing Rare Orchids

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Scientists at Kings Park Botanic Garden in Perth have discovered some mysteries about the Australian bush orchids. They’ve had so much success with growing them that they have put together a kit so you can grow your own, and they say it’s as easy as mushroom farming.

Native orchids

Native orchids were once part of many Australians’ spring bushwalks. But where have they gone? Most have vanished because of development and ecological damage, but scientists at Kings Park Botanic Garden in Perth are set to bring them back.

Concerned that we have already lost too many unique Australian orchids, a benefactor, Western Power gave Kings Park scientists more than a quarter of a million dollars to try to understand why orchids were vanishing from our bush and what we could do to bring them back.

Research over the past three years found that our orchids are like no others in the world. For example, every donkey orchid or greenhood orchid lives with a special fungus – a toadstool in effect – which is specialised for each orchid species. Amazingly, there are over 800 species of ground orchids in Australia, the largest number in the world, which means 800 different species of fungus.

The research found that ground orchids were rare and vanishing because the fungus was so specialised that it often disappeared when weeds and disease arrived in bushland.

Key discovery

The discovery of the fungus and its role as the key to the existence of ground orchids, pointed out how these orchids can be propagated and cultivated. The fungus is grown and used to inoculate the medium in which the orchid will grow. With the fungus in place, the orchid can survive.

With this new skill, it should be possible to restore these vanishing orchids back to the bush. It is also possible to grow them at home as well. By growing the fungus on nothing more complex than a muesli-like blend of breakfast oats, thousands of young orchids can be produced from a single orchid flower.

What is even more exciting is that Kings Park has discovered how to make these orchids flower quickly. Sometimes beautiful donkey orchids can flower within eight months of being grown in the laboratory, which is two and a half years sooner than by using any other method.

Grow your own

So what does this mean for the home gardener? Kings Park has developed a special kit, similar to a mushroom kit, for growing ground orchids. By ‘inoculating’ a pasteurised mix of leaf mulch with the fungus (provided by Kings Park) and sowing orchid seeds, it is possible to grow many of our most beautiful native orchids. It’s so straightforward that school kids could grow them as a classroom project.

And the good news doesn’t stop here. The methods pioneered by Kings Park are now being used to help encourage the growth of some of the rarest orchids in Australia including the grand spider orchid (down to just a dozen plants in the wild) and the Chinaman sun orchid, with its alluring scent of fresh cinnamon buns.

Availability

Grow-your-own ground orchid kits will be available from Kings Park or by mail-order in spring. They will be launched at the Kings Park Wildflower Festival, which runs from 18-28 September 1998. Kits will cost $9.95 or $15 including postage and handling. For those outside Perth or unable to attend the festival contact Kings Park for mail-order details. Phone (08) 9480 3600.