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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Meet the Great Greenhoods!

In my last posting I featured a few greenhood orchids, but I realised later that they probably won't be familiar to readers outside of Australia, and even to many people living here. I thought I might rectify that today. As a group they are almost restricted to Australia, and they are fairly modest and inconspicuous. They are over 200 strong however, and I find them fascinating. As I mentioned in the last posting, there is some turmoil here over the taxonomy; they have always been lumped into just one genus, Pterostylis, but recently, and controversially, the genus has been divided into 16 genera by Jones and Clements. I shall use their genus names here, because that's how they appear in Jones' mighty Complete Guide to Native Orchids of Australia, the only comprehensive work.

They seem to be an old group with no close relations; indeed they are so specialised that they are not always immediately recognised as orchids. To explain just how they're composed, allow me to give you a brief revision of the basics of an orchid flower, using a more 'standard' flower type.
Diuris punctata, Tallong, New South Wales.
(Please forgive the washed-out image - I must find a better way of labelling pics and getting them to this format.)
Unlike most flowers, orchids (and lilies) have sepals - the outer ring of flower parts - which are as large and colourful as the petals. There is one dorsal sepal at the top of the flower, and two lateral sepals lower down. There are two dorsal petals (which don't look as though they arise inside the sepals, but look at the top flower), with the third petal forming an insect landing platform called the labellum (lip). And that'll do for now!
In greenhoods, the two dorsal petals and the dorsal sepal strongly overlap to form the hood, or galea.
Summer Greenhood, Diplodium decurvum, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
The hood, or galea, covers the top of the flower; it is hard to make out the three different parts of it.
This picture also shows two other features of greenhoods. One is that the lateral sepals are fused, unlike those of other orchids like the Diuris above. The other is the essential labellum, which is tucked away inside the flower, sometimes protruding but in some cases always hidden. No greenhood provides a nectar reward to hard-working pollinating insects; all of them attract small male flies, either fungus gnats or mosquitoes, with a pseudo-pheromone, a chemical that mimics the 'come hither' scent of an interested female gnat or mosquito. When the amorously hopeful insect contacts the hinged labellum it snaps back, pinning the insect against the column, which contains both pollen and style. In its struggle the unfortunate gnat collects the sticky pollen, or delivers a bundle it's already carrying.

Two basic groups of greenhoods are recognised. The larger group is characterised by having upswept lateral sepals like the summer greenhood above, and the species featured in my last posting. Here are some more of this grouping.
Snail Orchid Linguella sp., Alligator Gorge, South Australia.
There are over 30 species of the little snail orchids, mostly in Western Australia;
unfortunately, at last count only five of them had been described!
Large Mountain Greenhood Pterostylis monticola, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
Some 25 Australian species remain in Pterostylis under Jones' taxonomy. Here the labellum protrudes.
Nodding Greenhood Pterostylis nutans, Micalong Falls, New South Wales.
Not dozing, they always look like this!

Trim Greenhood Taurantha concinna, Callala, south coast New South Wales.
Again the labellum is obvious, protruding through the join of the two lateral sepals;
this angle is the sinus, and is used for identification.
In the other sub-group, the lateral sepals point downwards - ie they are deflexed. The leafy greenhoods are good examples of this group.
Common Leafy Greenhood Bunochilus longifolius, Callala, south coast New South Wales.
The highly mobile labellum is fully exposed and snaps shut to form a closed door when an insect enters.
It then has to struggle to get out, increasing the chances of it contacting the orchid's column.
Black-tip Greenhood Hymenochilus bicolor, Munghorn Gap NR, central western New South Wales.
These flowers are tiny. In the middle flower the fly-like labellum is exposed; in the other two it has
snapped shut, locking the insect inside.
Sikh's Whiskers (!) Oligochaetochilus boormanii Weddin Mtns NP, south-western slopes New South Wales.
Not all greenhoods are just green!
To end, a couple of more spectacular ones, albeit still in an understated way.
Jug Orchid Stamnorchis recurva, Twin Creek NR, Western Australia.
The only one of its genus, restricted to the west, and quite unmistakeable.
Unnamed Plumed Greenhood Plumatichilus sp. Alligator Gorge, South Australia.
Only four of the 14 known species of plumed greenhoods have been described;
they have in common these wonderful long yellow hairs along the labellum.
So, the greenhoods, subtle beauties. I have you've enjoyed them as much as I do.



Denis Wilson said...

Hi Ian
Enjoyed your brave posting about Greenhoods.
So many, such differences.
I fully support the "new names" because they are diagnostic (e.g., Diplodium, vs Speculantha, vs Bunochilus) whereas Pterostylis could be anything.
Peter Weston in Sydney (RBG) still holds to the old names, as you probably know.
His argument is taxonomic. Mine is empirical and based on usefulness for "field work". At least it would have been if the Polish botanist Szlachetko had not involved himself.
Good botanist, lousy linguistically.

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Denis and thanks for your comments. I'm not so convinced that Szlachetko is really a good botanist; to my knowledge he's still never seen an Australian orchid growing in situ, which alone casts serious doubt on his qualifications to rewrite their taxonomy. I understand how Jones and Clements felt pressured to fast-track their own work in self-defence, but on the other hand botanical taxonomy is so democratic (not to mention a trifle anarchic)that no-one was going to be forced to adopt Szl's new nomenclature - in the same way that most of the Australian herbaria have now declined to adopt Jones'. I think that taxonomy must first and foremost be systematics - reflecting evolutionary relationships - and I'm not in a position to judge whether the identified distinctions warrant full genus differentiation or sub-genus status. Perhaps it doesn't matter - as long as we agree on the relative relationships, it's ultimately human conceit as to where we draw the lines. I do agree that the new genera/subgenera make dealing with, identifying and discussing greenhoods (and indeed 'caladenias') much easier!

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Ian
I agree, but Caladenias are another difficult genus (as you have indicated).
I come to this debate an an amateur, and I know what works for me, and what doesn't.
Pterostylis as a name for all of them has a "romantic" appeal, but in the field it is next to useless.

Michelle Farran said...

Hi Ian
We have found a patch of Monaro Greenhood orchids on our farm in Bendoc, Victoria. What is the best management strategy for protecting them? It is a part of our farm that is grazed by sheep but they have generally been removed in spring. The paddock they are in was developed as part of a timber mill so for a long time it was not grazed at all. How much does grazing affect the orchids?
Matthew Farran

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Michelle, and good to hear from you. I'm just back from overseas, hence the delay in replying. I'm no expert on the ecology and management of greenhoods, but a good general rule of thumb is 'if something is present, don't change management'. Bear in mind that even for spring-flowering orchids, they are generally present as green plants from autumn. You might try fencing an area and compare what happens there with the area still being grazed. Your local National Parks office might also have some advice. I'm sorry not to be able to be of more help.