Rare orchid found in NSW Southern Highlands

By Australian Geographic 14 May 2021
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Not only have scientists discovered 170 critically endangered pot-bellied greenhood orchids, but they’ve also extended its range.

The rare pot-bellied greenhood orchid has been discovered in the southern highlands of New South Wales.

The critically endangered orchid usually only flowers for a couple of weeks a year, but that doesn’t necessarily happen annually. 

The patch of 170 pot-bellied greenhood orchids were discovered by NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) officers Jedda Lemmon and Vanessa Allen.

While they’ve been known to pop up in the Shoalhaven area, scientists with the DPIE were excited to find them further west. The discovery, they say, came about thanks to a wetter summer.

Given the orchid’s small petals, it wasn’t an easy unearthing. “Once you start looking for these, you get clued in and your eyes start to pick them up, but with a flower the size of a fingernail – and it might only have two flowers and a flowering stem that might only last for up to two weeks – they can be challenging to survey for,” threatened species officer David Bain told the ABC.

Related: An illustrated guide to the orchids of Australia
(Image credit: NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

“They also have a small rosette of leaves that comes up at the same time as the flowers, but there are a number of different species with similar looking leaves, so you need to wait for the flowering to confirm the species.”

Following the discovery, which has extended the known range of the orchid, scientists want them protected.

“Ecology is complicated, we don’t understand everything and we may not know the broad ecological function of why it’s there, but because we don’t know, it doesn’t mean it’s not something we need to protect,” David said.

“We know there are relationships between the fungal associations in the soil so there’s quite an intricate web of connections around these species.

“There must be an ecological value of having these present in the environment.” 

Australia has more than 1700 of the 25–30,000 species in the Orchidaceae family known globally, yet, regrettably, 25 per cent of orchid extinctions occur here.

In part, orchid species are vulnerable because they require symbiotic relationships with specific types of ‘mycorrhizal’ fungi to grow and germinate, and many are pollinated by a unique species of pollinator.

Unravelling one thread in these complex relationships can have disastrous results.