Orchid hunting is gaining popularity, but flowers are feared to be ‘loved to death’
Orchid hunter Mark Wapstra has spent his entire life hunting and documenting native Tasmanian orchids.
The environmental scientist grew up searching for orchids with his parents and twin brother, and spent 30 years putting together a guide to flowering times.
- A growing number of people “hunt orchids”
- An expert says last season an incredibly rare plant was trampled on and another site was damaged
- Orchid theft is also becoming a problem
“I just remember spending weekends hanging out in the back of a two-wheel drive on a four-wheel drive track, chasing orchids,” he said.
The mystery and intrigue of the delicate flowers attract amateur and expert “orchid hunters”, who are drawn to the beauty and the pursuit of searching for a species they have never seen before.
“Spring is a real season for orchids in bloom and when some of the most special are coming out,” he said.
But Mr. Wapstra fears that the orchid will become loved to death.
A 3,500-member Facebook group has boosted the orchid’s popularity and information sharing, but the increase in popularity comes at a price.
“With social media, we’ve learned so much that we’ve even registered new state species from this Facebook group,” Mr. Wapstra said.
“It gets a lot, a lot more people interested, which is fantastic, but we visit some sites too much.”
He pointed out a site in the Tasmanian Midlands during the last orchid season where a single flower lives, making it one of the rarest plants in the world.
“At the end of the season he had been trampled on, so now he will not make a seed,” he said.
He said another popular orchid site in the Midlands was also damaged.
“We had all flattened the grass by looking at the orchid and photographing it,” he said.
Mr Wapstra said orchid thefts from reserves and public verges were also becoming a problem – with some people digging up plants and bringing them home.
“Most, if not all, will not survive,” he said.
“They don’t survive being dug up and put in a pot on your window sill.
He said orchids need fungi and pollinators to survive and thrive.
“The only reason to collect is if you have a scientific permit,” he said.
Mr Wapstra said the best way to collect orchids is to use a camera.
“My only advice to people is to be extremely careful where you step,” he said.
“Go alone instead of 20 people, you will do a lot less damage.”
For sensitive sites, he said people should reconsider the possibility of donating locations on social media and never enter private property without permission from the landowner.
An “orchid eye”
Like his parents, Mr. Wapstra has become obsessed with documenting orchids and goes to great lengths to find the flowers.
“You have an orchid eye, you have to come out and focus on what you are doing. Eyes down to the ground,” he said.
He thinks his job will never be finished.
“We just finished describing a new species,” he said.
“We have others that we know we have to deal with, whether it’s a new species or part of a complex of species that we don’t understand.”
Where to find them
There are around 220 species of wild orchids in Tasmania, and many are only endemic to a small part of the state or even to a specific forest.
Almost 80 are officially listed as threatened.
“The Northwest is very special to us orchid lovers,” he said.
“There are so many species that we call endemic and they don’t just occur in Tasmania. They are endemic to that region and they don’t occur anywhere else in the world other than there.
“They are in this windswept coastal moorland, the harshest country in this part of Tasmania, and you can find an orchid in bloom anytime you want.”
Tasmanian orchids vary in size from 1 inch high, like small helmet orchids, to one yard tall, like sun orchids and potato orchids.
“You can go there almost any time of the year and you will find something.”
He said the Freycinet Peninsula on the east coast was an orchid hotspot, with 85 species.
“You will see them right next to the tracks,” he said.
“You won’t have to walk more than a few feet from where you are sitting – if there are bushes, you will find them.”
The Three Capes Track area to the southeast is also a stronghold of orchids.
Mr Wapstra said he was involved in the runway flora and fauna surveys and had recorded around 20 species.
“Since then, one of the host rangers has found a dozen more species just by living on the trail,” he said.
“A lot of them appeared right next to the trail and we recorded 15 species growing in the gravel of the trail.”
Some orchids only flower for a day or two, which makes the sighting all the more special.