Are there any orchids growing in the desert?

Think of deserts and the image is that of a bleak barren landscape with little to see but this is not so.  The conditions are harsh but there is a myriad, though not an abundance, of hardy fauna and flora if one but looks closely.

But concerning orchids – No orchids have been found in true deserts…..  They also appear to be absent from the arid mountains of the far north-west, or at least no-one has ever found orchids there.

Orchids need moisture and so they do not grow on unstable soils such as dry sand-hills, gibber plains or the many saline areas of the far north but on the desert fringes there are micro-climates where the moisture, humidity and soil structure is  just right (to quote Goldilocks) for orchids.  This micro-climate is created by [s]hrubland  [which] is … [an] … important dryland orchid habitat. Besides providing shade and shelter for the orchids, shrubs like the many species of wattles, Acacia and hop-bush Dodonea drop fine leaves which help to hold the soil together and slowly break down into humus rich with nutrient and water storing capability. These shrublands usually form in soils too dry or shallow for trees. Orchids of course have no need for deep soils as they are shallow rooted. 

Robert Bates Semi-arid Shrubland.jpg

Semi-arid Shrublands, Flinders Ranges

Of the five desert botanical regions, the Eastern region contains the most number of species with over a dozen species.

Botanical Regions Map

Colour added to indicate the desert regions (in red)

Orchids of the Eastern Region – this region is from the east of the Flinders Ranges to the New South Wales border and includes the Olary Spur and Lake Frome.

Arachnorchis toxochila – Dry Land Spider Orchid or Bow Lip Spider Orchid.
Corunastylis tepperi – Mallee Midge Orchid
Diplodium robustum – Common green shell-orchid.
Hymenochilus pagophilus – Mountain Shell-orchid
Microtis eremaea – Desert onion orchid
Microtis frutetorum – Common woodland onion orchid.
Oligochaetochilus bisetus species complex, Rusty rufous-hoods

Oligochaetochilus sp. Blue-bush Plain – Blue Bush rufous-hood (O. bisetus complex)

Oligochaetochilus sp. Outback – Outback rufous-hood (O. bisetus complex)

Oligochaetochilus cobarensis – Little desert rufous-hood
Oligochaetochilus sp. Crossed Sepals Bibliando rufous-hood. (O. hamatus complex)
Oligochaetochilus sp. Bimbowrie Bimbowrie Rufoushood (O boormanii complex)
Oligochaetochilus linguus – Swept-back Rufoushood

Oligochaetochilus sp. Old Boolcoomatta Large-lip rufous-hood (O. linguus complex)

Oligochaetochilus sp. Quartz – Quartz hill rufous-hood (O. linguus complex)

Oligochaetochilus sp. Slender desert – Slender Desert rufous-hood (O excelusus complex)
Undescribed not within any other Oligochaetochilus complex

Oligochaetochilus sp. Canegrass – Desert Sand-hill Orchid.

Oligochaetochilus sp. Oratan Rock – Diminutive rufous-hood

Oligochaetochilus sp. ‘Mt Victoria Uranium Mine’ – Uranium rufous-hood

Prasophyllum odoratum – Scented Leek-orchid

Prasophyllum sp. Desert Desert Leek-orchid (P. odoratum complex)

The Gairdner-Torrens region includes, besides the salt lakes it is named after, the Gawler Ranges and the southern part of the Great Victoria Desert.  Though not as many species as the Eastern region, it contains some different species including a Sun Orchid.

Thelymitra megcalyptra

Thelymitra megcalyptra

Arachnorchis interanea – Inland Green-comb Spider Orchid
Arachnorchis toxochila – Dry Land Spider Orchid or Bow Lip Spider Orchid.
Hymenochilus pagophilus – Mountain Shell-orchid
Hymenochilus pisinnus – Tiny Shell-orchid
Jonesiopsis capillata – Pale Wispy Spider Orchid
Linguella sp. Hills nana – White haired little-greenhood.
Microtis eremaea – Desert onion orchid
Oligochaetochilus ovatus – Ovate Lip Rufoushood
Oligochaetochilus xerophilus – Desert rufous-hood
Prasophyllum sp. Desert Desert Leek-orchid (P. odoratum complex)
Thelymitra megcalyptra – Scented or Dryland Sun Orchid

Third of this group is the Nullabor region.  Consisting of flat treeless limestone plains, this area, surprisingly, has two species both of which have been found close to the coast.

Urochilus sanguineus – Maroon banded greenhood
Corunastylis sp. Intermediate – Halbury Midge Orchid (C. rufa complex)
Urochilus sanguineus

Urochilus sanguineus

The final two regions Lake Eyre and North-Western contain the vast expanses of desert of the far north of South Australia.  Definitely not a place to find orchids yet one specimen has been collected from each of these two regions.

Oligochaetochilus sp. Everard Range (L. Scott 173), Mimili Orchid (possibly O. woollsii complex) from North-Western Region.

Oligochaetochilus sp. Gammon Range (O excelusus complex) from the Lake Eyre region.

It is unusual to find orchids in the desert because they only grow when there have been good winter rains which isn’t very often.  But nevertheless, here in South Australia we have over 20 possible species – an astonishingly high number for such a harsh area!

Reference:

Bates R J ed, South Australia’s Native Orchids, 2011 Native Orchid Society of South Australia

Map adapted from Flora of South Australia, Fourth Edition, 1986

 

 

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