Image for Orchids of the propaganda dead zone

Orchids can appear in some strange places, and it’s not so unusual to find some species deep within our cities, if you know what they look like, and where they grow.  Several plants of a very common species of potato orchid (Gastrodia sesamoides) used to pop up every year in the garden of St David’s Cathedral in the inner Hobart.  Most of the colony was (doubtless unknowingly) buried by recent upgrades to access paths; a few probably survive elsewhere in the cathedral grounds.  In Wilson Street, Burnie, a fine group of bearded orchids (Calochilus robertsonii) puts on an excellent show in the front garden of a government building every spring.  Onion orchids (Microtis spp) and some common sun orchids (Thelymitra spp) are often seen in urban parks and lawns; there are many other examples.


But the most surprising urban orchid I’ve ever seen was the one I found plastered to a street wall on the corner of Macquarie and Harrington Streets this weekend.  The orchid (or more accurately, a photo of it) was labelled “Rare Orchid found in STYX COUP [sic] TN34B” and below that “ANCIENT FOREST // DEAD ZONE.  COMPLIMENTS OF FORESTRY TASMANIA.”


No name was given for the orchid, and the photo was not attributed, nor was any campaign group named on the poster.  Furthermore I was unable to find any information about claims of a significant orchid find in a Styx logging coupe online.  I was, however, able to find plenty of information about TN34B.  Logging in this coupe is contentious, as the coupe was declared to possess “high conservation value” in those recent political “peace talks” that were so notably bereft of direct scientific input.  In other words, it’s in an area of forest that the ENGOs happen to like.  You can see some of the claim and counter-claim on the Greens’ site here and perhaps FT and/or Bryan Green will respond to Tim Morris’s round two salvo.  Over the weekend, the coupe was reportedly promoted in the Wilderness Society’s latest “Day in the Styx”. 


Thus far, nothing I can find about the coupe indicates that it is unusual or special in the context of its area.  The coupe itself is, according to Bryan Green’s reply, a tiddler: “an 18 ha coupe which will be harvested for specialty timbers and sawlogs using aggregated retention to ensure at least 50% of the harvested area will be within one tree length of standing forest.”  The main pretext of the fuss is whether or not the coupe is politically off limits.


There certainly isn’t anything unusual or special about the orchid, pretty little thing as it is.  The broad dorsal sepal, the evidence of the orchid being coloured on the outside of the flowers compared to the inside, what can be seen of the colour pattern and the messy, crowded look of the calli (little clublike shapes in the middle of the flower) leave a choice between Caladenia alpina and Caladenia cracens, two very similar-looking species, both of which are common.  Especially given the locality and the likely habitat it’s extremely likely to be C. alpina (assuming the photo was actually taken in the Styx!) but from a not terribly good paper print of a black and white photo it’s hard to be totally certain which of the two it is – for a while they were assumed to be one species.  The range of the prime suspect, C. alpina, includes most of the state as well as the higher country of NSW, ACT and Vic, and it is described in Jones et al’s The Orchids of Tasmania as “Widespread and locally fairly common in highland areas up to 1200 m and sometimes as low as 400 m”.  Its presence in the Styx is no surprise. 


What sort of activist passes off a common orchid as rare, without checking their identification properly, without putting a name to their handiwork, just whacking their unsupported claim onto a pole as a pretty picture, perhaps on the assumption that the city public are too gullible to know better? Everyone knows all orchids are rare, right? I suggest that the Dead Zone may be found between that propagandist’s ears, or maybe wherever in the propagandist’s mindset those of us who actually give the odd stray hoot about the facts keep our senses of scientific accountability.


But there is more to say about logging, Dead Zones and orchids.  About ten years ago I visited the Styx for the first time.  As well as exploring several areas of old growth, I walked along a narrow strip that had been logged and burned along the roadside not far from the site of the “Chapel Tree”.  And there, among all the usual post-logging blackness and the unusually large dead stumps – in the middle of the Dead Zone where the orchids never grow (Mr/Ms Harrington/Macquarie Corner said so) - were many excellent plants of a fine, if common, sun orchid species, Thelymitra circumsepta – a species one would hardly see amid the depths of the intact oldgrowth mixed forests, since it is stimulated by disturbances and fire.


Finally, if these “citizen scientists” we keep hearing so much about want to make much more effective use of Tasmania’s orchid flora, there’s plenty of real work out there to be done.  The real work, challenging to say the least, beats the hell out of inane exercises like videotaping devils or whacking photos of common orchids onto graffiti walls.  To give just one example, the incredible Myrtle Elbow Orchid (Thynninorchis nothofagicola) is known only from a single site near the Gordon River Road, where it is extremely rare.  Any activist finding this species within a logging coupe anywhere would make an enormous contribution both to their cause and to the conservation of what appears to be a genuinely critically endangered species. 


Dr Bonham’s interest in native orchids not only pre-dates but even contributed to his interest in native snails.  In 2007-8 he rediscovered Corunastylis nudiscapa, a species which had been presumed extinct having not been recorded for the previous 155 years.  He has worked for FT as a freelance consultant now and then within that sort of time period, but is not currently doing so.