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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.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Orchids by the Ice; Patagonia

It probably seems surprising to my Northern Hemisphere readers, but outside of Antarctica only the southern tip of South America lies below 50 degrees south; Australia and Africa come nowhere near it. 50 degrees north however is well inside northern Europe, Asia and North America, but my Australian readers will probably share my wonderment at the concept of a healthy forested ecosystem - and orchids - 1000km south of Hobart.

This is Patagonia, and today I want to offer another snippet on South American orchids, a very different one from previous postings on orchids of tropical Peru and Ecuador. Orchids are so widespread and successful that it shouldn't be surprising to find them absolutely anywhere, but when I first came across them in these distant cold wind-blasted lands I was amazed as well as delighted. 
Two Chilean Patagonian habitats where orchids may be found.
Above, open pampa - high dry grassland - east of Coyaique.
Below, Nothofagus (beech) forest, Torres del Paine NP.


The first one I found was the lovely and robust yellow Gavilea lutea - not surprising as it is not only big and conspicuous, but as I now know it tends to favour disturbed sites, including clearings in the beech forest, roadsides and disturbed grassy areas which are often found around lodges in parks such as Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
Gavilea lutea, Torres del Paine NP.
The thick stem can be 60cm high and bear over 20 flowers.
The Spanish name for it translates simply as Yellow Orchid; I don't know of an English one.
 
 There are 14 Gavilea species, all in the south. A much less common one, in my experience at least, though no less lovely, is G. araucana, Araucana Orchid. I found this one on a very wet bank (on a very wet day!) along a section of the Sendero de Chile (the Chile Track) just south of Torres del Paine.
Gavilea araucana.
The species name comes from the Spanish name for the indigenous Mapuche people.
This one is found as far north as 35 degrees south.
A larger genus is Chloraea, with some 50 species, mostly from the southern Andes. As expected, they are tough, able to withstand not only the deep snows of winter, but drought and even fires, by means of underground tubers - this of course is a characteristic of many terrestrial orchids.
Chloraea magellanica, Porcelain Orchid, is a most striking orchid, up to 40cm high and robust like Gavilea
(well you have to be tough to survive in Patagonia!) and also found in relatively open sites.
Chloraea for the greenish flowers, magellanica for the far southern distribution, as far south as the
Strait of Magellan.
The last one I know from down there is a delicate little delight which can form carpets in the beech forests. One of the best places I know for it - though it's widespread - is the walk to Lago Grey in Torres del Paine, where the icebergs come to die on the black sand beach. The orchids grow in sight of the ice.
Iceberg approaching the beach, Lago Grey.
(The glacier in the background, where the berg was born, is 18km away -
it is big!)
Codonorchis lessonii, Lago Grey.
Dog Orchid in English (purportedly for the scent!) and in Spanish,
somewhat more poetically, Palomita - 'little dove'.
(Though there are other meanings, ranging from popcorn to a dive in football!)
There are only two members of the genus - this one is found also across the Strait of Magellan
on Tierra del Fuego, and even on the Falklands.


So, not the overwhelming diversity of orchids that are found far to the north, but I find these little survivors fascinating and very beautiful. You'll probably not go to Patagonia specifically for the orchids - but when you do go, don't miss them!

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