THE first time I stumbled on to a colony of Bulbophyllum Elisae was a day I could never forget . . . for more than just the obvious reason of having located a new species for the first time. It was October 1978, a very hot and dusty day, travelling for hours already with a distinctly irate seven months old baby . . . and only six more hours until home sweet home.
With Mrs Walsh sublimely happy in the seat beside me, I announced a rest stop at a certain lookout (somewhere between the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Murray River), just to give the little fella a break from his car seat. This also provided Mrs Walsh with a refreshing escape from the confines of the air-conditioned vehicle. I thought my offer a very magnanimous gesture indeed.
About 300 metres away, over the edge of a nearby cliff, I traipsed off to answer an urgent call of nature. There, on a collection of crumbling boulders, big sheets of lush green orchids confronted me. Inexperienced as I was in 1978, I deemed these specimens to be Dendrobium monophyllum . . . based on the observation that the little bulbs were crowned by a single long green leaf. It was another year or so before I realised what a giant conclusion I had leapt to. When they flowered they turned out to be beautiful examples of B. elisae.
But at the time of discovery I thought I had found Lasseters Reef of Gold. You could hear my cries of jubilation for hundreds of metres I reckon. Way up above you could hear my sons cries for kilometres I know! I crawled out of the scrub covered in perspiration and in triumph. The usually passive Mrs Walsh looked somewhat less triumphant than myself as I recall. I remember thinking that the heat had made her just a wee bit testy. Imagine what state she would have been in if I had not had the foresight to stop for a break?
Elisae is not an uncommon orchid. It is distributed from the Blue Mountains in the south northwards to southeastern Queensland. I have seen small clump in the Bunya Mountains (Dalby area) in visits over the years. It is also quite numerous at many spots in between. But never have I seen the quantity that graced the rocks in that very first location mentioned above. There it could be measured by the square metre. It is nearly as abundant in many of the high altitude areas of the Granite country of the Northern Tablelands.
Elisae is quite flexible in regards to its habitat requirements. It will happily colonise rainforest trees where it shows a preference for the limbs of its host, although it will often be seen on the main trunks. It can be found all through the typical rainforest gully from creek banks right up to the tops of ridges well away from water. And where the rainforest ends, B. elisae can happily continue on into the drier forest surrounds. It is in this drier environment that it begins to settle on rocks.
The tree species that I have seen B. elisae growing on include: Coachwood (Blue Mountains); Ficus species (Bellangry); Casuarina (Barrington Tops); Hoop Pine (Dorrigo, Killarney); Tulip Oak (Killarney); Camphor Laurel (Armidale) and on the bases of large Eucalyptus trees in the Mt Lindesay region. Old man Banksias also play host. These are only the trees I could identify. There are many other hosts. That is the way it is with B. elisae – it can grow anywhere.
In the Blue Mountains B. elisae is not overly common but it can be seen if you keep your eyes open. Not readily noticed, but for the keen observer it is certainly possible to see plants on sandstone cliffs in creek beds and on rainforest trees such as Coachwood.
Elisae has conical shaped pseudobulbs to 2 cms diameter and the same in height. The most distinguishing feature of these is the mass of warty tubercles studding the surface, making them appear like pointy rubber thumb thimbles. Bulbs are generally a yellowy green colour and if growing in a lot of sun they can go very bronzy brown or even be covered by thick sheets of lichen, literally.
A single, light green leaf up to 10 cms long that is quite stiff and erect tops the bulbs. After a few years, the leaf usually drops off but the bulb can remain viable for many more years before withering up. It is frequently only the peripheral bulbs of clumps that have green leaves.
The raceme of B. elisae can be up to 12 cms long, semi-upright and support up to a dozen blooms. The flowers have greatly extended lateral sepals that hang limply in the manner of an upside down butterfly. The column and other segments are minute by comparison. Colour is most frequently a bright apple green turning towards yellow with age. There is a fairly strong perfume present that is not particularly attractive.
Very rarely, the normally green flowers are a deep red/brown to dull purple in colour. These colour forms are not a solid colour like the normal form, but they have a striped appearance about them. They are extremely attractive. Only once have I come across this form in the wild. There were about five or six clones and I have often wondered if these unusual colour forms are genetically fixed or just a freak occurrence from normal seed pods. The presence of a number of clones in the same locality would suggest that it is an inheritable characteristic.
In cultivation, B. elisae is something of an enigma. Because although it is not uncommon in the bush, and just about always looks in great condition when seen there, it can be a very trying orchid to cultivate successfully in the bush house. I have been surprised over the years to find that some growers, who could usually grow hair on a billiard ball, have very nearly pulled their hair out in frustration with B. elisae.
While it is not subject to suddenly falling off the perch like some of the Sarcanthinae species do, it very often lingers on for years without ever regaining the big fat bulbs it once had. The leaf very often develops brown, rotten tips or patches and will remain about half the size of the original ones . . . that is if they maintain their connections with the pseudobulbs at all. The flowering performance often suffers greatly as well, with tiny little flowers in ones and twos on pathetically short racemes.
Some growers do manage to overcome these problems and show off well-cultivated plants at the monthly meetings – just to annoy all the grumpy growers standing well back from the benches. So where do I stand in this cultivation arena? To be slightly immodest, but forever honest, I seem to maintain my plants of B. elisae in a respectable enough condition.
In the final analysis, I believe that all the problems B. elisae exhibits relate back to the water and humidity levels it is subjected to. So if you aren not growing it brilliantly, you should be moving it around and testing different micro-climates in your bush house. But for heavens sake dont just let the poor plant hang around losing condition. If it gets down to too low an ebb, there may be no possibility of a revival at all.
The only aspect of culture I swear by for certain concerns the host you use for B. elisae. Once again it has to be tree fern fibre. I have used the rest . . . but tree fern is the best! And it just has to be Cyathea, not Dicksonia. The roots really love to get inside the fibre. But don’t overwater this host because B. elisae is an orchid that resents wet feet. The main thing is . . . make sure the roots can aerialise when they want to. Also very good is natural Portuguese cork. It doesn’t stay damp and is really good for the fine roots of B. elisae.
Hang it up high for the better air movement, work out your water regime, fertilise with everything else in the bush house and I cannot see why you would not be able to grow B. elisae as good as the experts do . . . if there are any experts that is. The good news is that, for the novice grower, B. elisae is not usually hard to obtain.