Firing the Orchid
Firing the Orchid
Video by Malcolm McKinnon
Contact Malcolm McKinnonCopyright
Andrew Pritchard first encountered the rare Mellblom’s Spider Orchid when he was a boy, growing up in Portland in south-west Victoria.
Now, many years later, his work for the Department of Sustainability & Environment has involved a long-term study of the orchid and work to bring it back from the brink of extinction. Here, Andrew describes the peculiar ecological niche of the Spider Orchid and explains how summer fire is a critical factor in its survival.
ANDREW PRITCHARD: I'm a local Portland person. I grew up in the botanical gardens in Portland. My father was a curator of the botanical gardens. I've had an active interest in plant things from when I was a young boy.
I first become involved with Mellblom's spider orchid when I was about 13. My brother brought me out here after a wildfire that occurred in 1976. And it was a recent discovery for that at that stage. It hadn't been seen for quite a number of years prior to that. Quite an outstanding find back then. And it was quite exciting for me when I was 13, wandering through thick vegetation after a fire, getting all black and charcoal-y, and seeing this wonderful flowering plant that was just standing out.
Fire is very important for this species. It opens up the environment. It puts a whole lot of carbon back into the ground. It creates open spaces, which are important for a whole range of things that this particular orchid requires.
After a summer fire, this plant will initiate a leaf come March, April. It will flower in October. The orchid mimics a female wasp. It's a Thynnine wasp. So it mimics that pheremone and mimics the look at that female wasp so that it tricks the male into thinking it's a female wasp.
So he comes down, he lands on the labellum of the orchid. So labellum rocks backwards and forwards. Pollen is deposited on the back of his neck. He gets a bit frustrated, flies away.
If we're lucky, that male wasp that's got the pollen on the back of his head will go on to another orchid. And then the pollen is transferred onto that orchid. That's how the orchid actually gets to be able to do what it does.
Pre-European times, Mellblom's spider orchid would've been utilized by traditional peoples for tubers, so it would have been consumed. And the area would've been managed by a number of methods, by fire stick methods-- so burning at the time, so when traditional people burnt the landscape. And also by wildfire, lightning events which traditionally happened in the summer period.
Fire's an integral part of all orchid species in Victoria. Mellblom's spider orchid is one of the more threatened species that we're dealing with. Its numbers go to as low that we knew of, as low as six plants since we have come into Australia. And we've lost roughly a species or two every generation. So Europeans have had a significant impact on our environment.
So personally I feel that it's important that we place a value on them. If we don't place values on them and what the values are for the environment, well, then we're not doing ourselves justice.