Bold Beauty Back after Decades Lost in Lade Vale and London

The Rosy Hyacinth Orchid  (Dipodium roseum), long lost to view, will be flowering in Lade Vale and other places around the district over the next few weeks.

If You Go Down in the Woods Today 

Provided you are in the right place, you could be in for a big surprise during the next few months. You may be lucky enough to see a noteworthy and unusual native orchid flaunting its very showy  flowers. Most orchid species we see locally tend to be short, modest and unobtrusive with their full beauty not being apparent unless they are very closely examined through a magnifying glass. Not so the Hyacinth Orchid, the largest terrestrial orchid in our district, which displays its bright pink petals to the world on long purple stems up to 3/4 of a metre high.

This stunning wonder has emerged on two Lade Vale properties for the last three years in a row.  Neither of the current property owners had seen it over the preceding twenty years or so. One of the properties was the childhood home of Sid Hillier who knew the place well over many years - firstly as a youngster from the late 1930s and later with his wife Maree. Neither Sid nor Maree have ever seen this orchid before.

 Sid and Maree Hillier pictured in their Gunning Home in November 2017.  It is on Maree’s bucket list to see the Rosy Hyacinth Orchid in the flesh but neither she nor Sid ever saw it during their long stewardship of their former Lade Vale property.

The orchid in question is probably the Rosy Hyacinth Orchid Dipodium roseum. This species was once part of a larger Hyacinth Orchid group called Dipodium punctatum and the two are often mistaken for the other. Indeed, I would not be willing to wager a large sum backing my identification of it as a D. roseum and will be working harder on this in coming weeks. But, regardless of which Dipodium it is, we undoubtedly have a remarkable orchid appearing to view.

While it is a most unusual plant locally and well worth telling you about, it cannot be said the orchid’s recent resurgence marks it as a Lazarus plant coming back from local extinction. But it has, in a sense, been extinct in the world of historic art until recently.

“Paint Cannot Describe Their Brilliancy” – First Fleeter Newton Howell


The First Fleeters arriving in Botany Bay in 1788 were entranced by the astounding variety of plants and animals they encountered.  Despite the privations they faced in those early years it seems all the first white arrivals with artistic skills launched into painting and drawing the wonderful new plants and animals they saw. 

Officers, men and convicts alike painted and drew plants, animals and local Aboriginal people.  One of these, the harsh and insensitive Major Robert Ross, seen by most historians as a prickly personality and brutal manager of the Norfolk Island penal settlement, seems an unlikely candidate to be a refined painter of frilly flowers – but even he was among the enthusiasts.

Left: Artist unknown, “Hyacinth Orchid (Dipodium), 1790s, watercolour from Lambert’s Derby Collection.  Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

 Many of the First Fleeters’ works, including the one pictured here, found their way into the hands of wealthy nature and art collector Aylmer Bourke Lambert.  In 1842 the Earl of Derby acquired Lambert’s collection from his debt ridden estate.  The collection then disappeared from sight until the 19th Earl of Derby put them up for sale in 2011.  Happily, they were acquired by the State Library of New South Wales so these beautiful historic works have now returned to the place they were created.

What’s So Wondrous About the Hyacinth Orchid? 

The Rosy Hyacinth Orchid pictured above is living happily in a dry sclerophyll woodland copse at Lade Vale. This plant grows in many environments, having been observed in almost pure sands,sandy loam, dry shale ridges, rich red and heavy black soils. A seemingly adaptable species, it has thus far proved impossible to cultivate in nurseries.

We all know, don’t we, that plants use chlorophyll to harness energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen? Our Rosy Hyacinth takes a different path. It has no known need for sunlight. Instead, it is a saprophytic plant which uses dead, rotting organic material as its food.

The woodland trees in Lade Vale, as with many others around the world, form a mutually beneficial partnership with specific species of fungi called mycorrhizae (or root fungus). These mycorrhizae are enormously important in nature and agriculture. They enable tree roots to take up nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen (which are deficient in many of our local soils) much more effectively than they could without their synergistic underground partners. The fungus’s reward comes in the form of sugars provided by the tree’s roots.

And it seems not just any old trees and associated soil detritus will do for the Rosy Hyacinth - it needs particular fungus to break down rotting vegetation matter. It certainly seems that Stringy Bark trees are among those favoured.  Scientists and nurserymen have been unable to cultivate this orchid in laboratories or pots – almost certainly because they are unable to replicate the complex growing environment the orchid needs.

Scientists believe if we knew more about the natural microbiology of our soils and the relationships between plants and their mutualistic fungi and bacteria we could well be able to reduce the amount of artificial fertilisers currently used around the world.

Purple Super Food

Readers of the foodie press will know that purple foods are essential for those wanting to boost their life spans and vitality – kale, beetroot, purple yams and the like. Does our decidedly purple specimen fall into this category of beneficial plants?

The purple asparagus shown here is no 8 in a list of 10 purple super foods recommended by foodie website the Food Revolution Network. It bears some resemblance to our Rosy Hyacinth Orchid does it not?

A great little book published by the ACT Government, Ngunnawal Plant Use, says that the tubers of the Hyacinth Orchid can be eaten all year round. Ngunnawal women knew how to find these tubers even when there were no obvious stems – a skill I would really like to acquire. That said, I am not urging you to put it on your menu – partly out of caution and also because the Rosy Hyacinth does not need food foragers adding to the threats it faces.

I also believe it is a purple super food for native macropods and sheep. There is strong circumstantial evidence implicating kangaroos in eating the orchids at Lade Vale but they have not yet been caught in the act on camera. I also wonder if kangaroos play a role in spreading the plant through their faeces.   

Not enough proof for a conviction but this suspect should certainly be brought in for questioning. A macropod caught on camera lurking suspiciously near a place where, only a day before, a tall flourishing Hyacinth Orchid was clearly visible. Now, as you can see, nothing remains.


Why Has It Returned?

The Rosy Hyacinth Orchid has never been totally absent but it has certainly been seen for the first time by Lade Vale locals over the last few years.  The fact that we are seeing it for the first time may be due to our not looking hard enough or in the right places. But, more probably, it may be due to changes in land use and demographics in the district.

This orchid has a strong association with sclerophyll woodlands – particularly mature ones where the trees’ mycorrhizae have developed extensive underground networks. Sid and Maree Hillier spent a lot of time and effort in clearing Stringy Bark/Brittle Gum stands to make way for pasture as recommended by all reputable authorities for many years. The reduction in the orchid’s preferred environment would certainly have been detrimental to it. Now that the woodlands have been allowed to return and the trees' root fungi network is maturing, things are looking up for the Rosy Hyacinth.

If, as suspected, sheep are also partial to the orchid many parts of Lade Vale would not have been an easy place for it to survive in the face of intensive grazing by stock. Over the last few decades sheep grazing practices have been changing. Rotational grazing under which paddocks are rested is being encouraged in place of intensive set stocking where pastures are subject to constant use. Hobby farmers and people just wanting life style rural blocks are becoming more common. This has resulted in fewer sheep to eat delectable native orchids and the regrowth of the woodlands they prefer.  Whether or not you think this is a good thing, the Rosy Hyacinth Orchid would likely vote in favour of this trend continuing.

The latest science shows that it need not be a case of choosing between sheep and orchids.  It is possible, even desirable, to incorporate both production and biodiversity in modern farming.  But that is another story.

Like to Know More?  

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is highly recommended if you would like to know more about the vast and complex social network that constitutes our woodlands and forests. As the book’s back cover says, “After you have read The Hidden Life of Trees, a walk in the woods will never be the same again.”

Natural Curiosity by Louise Anemat tells the story of the First Fleet artists. 

Ngunnawal Plant Use - a traditional Aboriginal plant use guide for the ACT region
is well worth a look if you have even a passing interest in this subject.

Thank You to the One I Dare Not Name

I was given unstinting and very useful help in preparing this article by person with a huge library on things biological and botanical together with a lot of knowledge on these topics. – but who does not want to be publicly acknowledged. Nevertheless, I am very grateful to my anonymous coach and editor and want to say so. Any sillinesses you may have seen above will all be down to me rather than the One I Dare Not Name.