I had to catch my breath at the thought of being asked to speak at the 2008 Western Australia Orchid Conference. That continent is literally on the other side of the world… and the host city, Perth, is on the remote west coast. Do they really grow orchids there? That must be a very LONG flight….over 24 hours? And there is the small detail of passing through ‘The International Date Line’ in which one whole day mysteriously vanishes…something like the Bermuda Triangle of time…..
My grand assumption was that if I’m going all the way to Australia, I might as well see the whole country so I booked a four city tour that included Brisbane, Cairns, and Sydney. Everywhere, people were smiling. The streets were clean and the skies sunny. The whole place seemed like a fairy tale.
There were some idiosyncrasies that took a little getting used to. For instance, the cars drive on the left side. The seasons are backwards. They’ve never heard of Inches or Fahrenheit. The smallest coin is five cents. And their zany sense of humor combined with ‘Down Under’ slang made for nonsensical conversations.
Australians are not thrilled with their trademark adorable Kangaroo populations. Night drivers must use ultrasonic ‘Roo Shoo’ devices to clear the road of hopping animals. The other extreme is found with Koala bears. After hours of observing these cuties, it is apparent that their lives consist entirely of eating and sleeping. Wombats, Wallabies, Emus, Dingoes, and Tasmanian Devils round out the field.
The main reason that tourists flock to this far away land is the Great Barrier Reef – one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of the World’ along with the likes of The Grand Canyon and Mount Everest. Words cannot adequately describe the visual effect one gets while snorkeling or scuba diving ‘The Reef’ but imagine 744 miles of tropical fish swimming aimlessly amidst cliffs of florescent coral intermingled with giant mollusks, sponges, and crustaceans.
Now about that orchid show…Cymbidiums, Cymbidiums, Cymbidiums! They’re big, colorful, and ‘grow like weeds.’ Nearly every exhibit contained large groupings of these specimens. Green, yellow, white, pink, burgundy – imagine the color and it probably exists. Australia’s climate boasts sunny days and cool nights – the perfect combination for Cyms. No greenhouse required, just grow outside. The winning entry in this class was an enormous plant with four spikes of round cream colored blooms etched in red.
Aussies are also very good at raising complex Paphiopedilums, affectionately known as ‘Toads’. These lady slippers also like cool nights but require less sunlight than cymbidiums. Foliage is ‘solid green’ rather than their more common ‘mottled leaf’ cousins and the single flower is about the size of a softball. Older plants can have multiple leaf growths and flowers. The true allure of paphs is their individuality – no two are alike because they are all grown from seed. It is not uncommon for a ‘proven stud’ to command $5000 or more because these orchids can’t be cloned or identically mass produced.
The star of the show for the non-Australians like me was the class that included a pair of native Dendrobium species. Den speciosum is considered one of the showiest orchids in the world and grows wild on both rocks and trees along the entire east coast. Aptly named, this plant is often found as a super sized specimen in the rainforest. The flower sprays give the appearance of Hyacinths – thousands of tiny white or yellow blossoms shooting off the tops of the canes. Den kingianum is just the opposite – a miniature plant that grows comfortably in a 4” pot and produces cute purple or white blooms. Both species are a must for any serious collector…
Imagine my surprise when this ‘once in a lifetime’ trip turned into a ‘first of many’ as I was asked to return in 2012 for the next orchid conference. I’ll be sure to visit the attractions that I missed this time – the crocodile infested Daintree Rainforest, the uninhabited island of Tasmania, and the Aborigines of the Outback. As the Aussies say, ‘No worries, mate!’

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 17:45