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Extinct no more

Published 20 Mar 2011 

A lucky encounter and some hard work helps uncover an endangered orchid.

Who would have expected that a field trip to Bush Heritage’s Nardoo Hills Reserves in spring 2009 would uncover the robust greenhood, an orchid long presumed to be extinct?

Robust greenhood orchid

The robust greenhood orchid at Nardoo Hills Reserves. Photo Jeroen van Veen.

Certainly not Bush Heritage Field Officer Jeroen van Veen.

The robust greenhood was last sighted near Maldon, Victoria, in 1941 – and it had never been recorded in the Nardoo Hills vicinity.

It was the last thing that Jeroen ever expected to find on a normal day at Nardoo.

A mystery flower appears

As Jeroen recalled, ‘Ian Higgins, one of the botanists with the North Central Catchment Management Authority, had come to Nardoo Hills to see the work that Bush Heritage was doing here.

We walked through the reserve, Ian took photos of various plants and that was that.’

It was only later, as Ian was struggling to identify one of the plants that he showed the photo to orchid expert, Julie Whitfield from the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). When Julie looked at the image she was convinced that this was indeed something very special.

Absent for 70 years

Positive identification of the orchid proved somewhat challenging due to the limited records made about the orchid around the time the orchid vanished some 70 years ago.

Julie suspected that the flower in Ian's photo was the robust greenhood. But since no photos of the orchid existed, Julie and her colleague, Geoff Nevill, had to rely on written descriptions and illustrations sketched from dried samples in the National Herbarium.

As the DSE is very interested in many of the rare plants at Nardoo Hills, Julie is in regular contact with Jeroen and mentioned the robust greenhood to him. Jeroen, in turn, told Bush Heritage colleague, Dave Baker-Gabb. But that was as far as it went.

‘We tend to keep things like this a tight secret till we know more. You don't want to create a big fuss about something that may turn out to be nothing,' Jeroen emphasised.

'When we find rare species like... the robust greenhood, it means our land management is worthwhile. It confirms everything that Bush Heritage and our supporters are doing.'

But Julie was on the trail of something exciting and asked Jeroen to show her the flowers. Sounds easy, perhaps, but in reality, presented a whole new challenge for Jeroen.

Small orchid, big reserve

Jeroen van VeenJeroen van Veen, Reserve Manager of Nardoo Hills Reserves. Photo: Catherine Hunt.

‘There were no GPS readings from the earlier field trip,' says Jeroen. ‘So I needed to retrace our steps.' And by this time, the orchid would just be a bulb concealed under the soil.

So Jeroen had to wait months, until late October when the orchid would be flowering again.

As Jeroen explained, ‘You have to get on your hands and knees. You also need very good eyesight. The orchid is green so it doesn't stand out. And because of the rains, this year the grass is higher than ever before.'

When the orchid was finally located and confirmed, Jeroen was thrilled.

‘This is what we work for. After years and years of slogging away and restoring natural bushland, these are the kinds of things that keep you going. These are the big motivators.'

Setting the scene for the orchid's comeback

Bush Heritage donors, volunteers and staff have been doing a wonderful job in controlling Patterson's curse, horehound, saffron thistle and the wheel cactus at Nardoo Hills.

Weeds like this compete with native plants for water, light and space, crowding and smothering native species like the robust greenhood. Without careful land management, including weed control, the robust greenhood and other native species cannot survive or flourish.

Now Bush Heritage, together with the DSE and the Royal Botanic Gardens, is researching the orchid. ‘We need to find out which insects pollinate the robust greenhood and also what fungus triggers seed germination,' says Jeroen.

‘We'll also do some research to see where else this fungus exists on our Bush Heritage reserves.'

By understanding these critical factors we're better placed to manage this species and safeguard its future.

‘Our experience has been that two to three years after we've undertaken weed and feral animal control, we see rare orchid species, like the northern golden moth orchid (another rare orchid found on Nardoo Hills), multiply,' Jeroen said.

‘When we find rare species like the northern golden moth and now the robust greenhood, it means our land management is worthwhile. It confirms everything that Bush Heritage and our supporters are doing.'

Help the robust greenhood population grow strong!

Did you know that without your support, the robust greenhood might have stayed on the extinction list forever?

Reserve staff like Jeroen rely on your support to allow them to look after the habitat of many of our precious species like the robust greenhood, the northern golden moth orchid and many others at Nardoo Hills and your other reserves.

Jeroen thanks you for your wonderful support so far! 

Species profile

Name:  Robust greenhood orchid, Pterostylis valida

Distribution: Seems to have been a narrow range, confined to granite hills around Maldon.

Last collected: In 1941 at Mt Tarrengower, Maldon, after which it vanished for 70 years and was declared extinct.

Appearance: Two to six translucent white and green striped flowers up to 2 cm long on short, stout stalks. The flower petals curved inwards to mimic the look of a hood.

Flowers: In October and November.

Threats: Weed invasions, grazing and foraging by introduced herbivores have altered much of this species' habitat.

Nardoo Hills Reserves were acquired between 2004 and 2007 with assistance of the R.E. Ross Trust, Judith Eardley Save Wildlife Association and the Australian Government under the Natural Heritage Trust's National Reserve System Programme. Thanks also to Annie Danks Charitable Trust, Bjarne K. Dahl Trust and The Garry White Foundation for their support of vital conservation work at Nardoo this year. 

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