In Quest of a Dream Dendrobium schneiderae variety major : 1989

Note: These words were written in 1989 but they are still relevant in 2018. Enjoy.

WHEN I first joined Sydney Group in 1982, one of the first species I remember seeing in the flesh for the first time was D. schneiderae. There were three or four benched and, being strictly a species grower, it was mind boggling to see a species that I had previously only read about. About the same time, I received advance warning that D. schneiderae would soon be available at Bob Deane’s Orchid nursery. I purchased four plants and a year or so later they flowered well. I was proud to escort them into our meeting place, then at the Ryde School of Horticulture.

On the same night, another member of Sydney Group, and the then editor of the Orchadian, Mr Joe Betts, put my nose right out of joint. He had the audacity to bring along a specimen of D. schneiderae that boasted racemes at least three times the length of my best plant. I made up my mind right there to ignore Joe for at least a year. As if having coldly humiliated me wasn’t enough, he then stood up to give a plant description and it was then that I first heard of the existence of Dendrobium schneiderae variety major.

Joe went through the ins and outs of this variety and every word he uttered was etched deeply into my memory. The very name of it . . . variety MAJOR . . . had such a regal ring to it. I swore to myself that I would track down a plant of this magical species – nothing could stop me!

Joe’s specimen was at that time the only example of variety major known to Sydney Groupers. I dispatched a letter to a gentleman in North Queensland who passed on my queries to an elderly resident of North Mackay. A furious exchange of letters resulted in a small package arriving on my doorstep. Inside was a very sorry collection of leafless bulbs, more mash than actual bulbs, but definitely not a green leaf in sight. With great reservations I tied the little pieces onto two slabs of weathered hardwood. To my great delight green shoots began sprouting everywhere. I at last had in my possession a couple of fine mounts of the orchid of my dreams.

Major is confined to the Eungella Ranges, which are situated about 100 kms north-west of Mackay, in central coastal Queensland. The well known “type” or “southern” form does not extend north of the Border Ranges on the NSW Queensland border. In the intervening 1000 kms between Mackay and the border, there is no form of D. schneiderae present at all. Variety major really is a species (variety) literally restricted to a single mountain zone.

Dendrobium schneiderae

D. schneiderae type form showing the ruddy edges of the blooms

Dendrobium schneiderae

D. schneiderae: type form, left: var. major, right. Raceme length difference.

The longest raceme my plants have ever produced was measured with a steel ruler at 13 inches (34 cms). They frequently reach 10 inches (25 cms). Because of the progressive flowering habit of the buds, the great length of raceme means that Major could be in flower for perhaps three months, with up to 40 flowers per raceme. The flowers lack the attractive ruddy-coloured edging to the segments that typifies the southern form of D. schneiderae. Pseudobulbs are on average around 25 per cent larger as well. Flower size in both varieties is similar. Over the years, dear old Major has treated me very well at shows and monthly meetings. Everyone, it seemed, was after a piece but except for a few bulbs here and there I wasn’t able to spread much about.

Dendrobium schneiderae

30 cm steel ruler comparing length of raceme in var. major

In October 1989 I took long service and, with the whole family in tow, went on a long holiday to Queensland. We were away for seven weeks and it was in the fourth week that we stayed for six days at the very beautiful Cape Hillsborough – about 70 kms north of Mackay.

For a seven years I’d wanted badly to have a look at the Eungella district for myself. And of course I had visions of finding a huge, fallen tree just loaded with Major. Needless to say I was standing amongst it like the “Great White Hunter” with his tiger. I wasn’t able to locate anybody who knew where in that vast area Major actually preferred to grow. Not one hint regards elevation, host tree etc. I had to go in blindly and stumble around anywhere I could. Hopefully I would find what is, after all, a fairly small, rare species in a real big wilderness. Unfortunately, I had lost contact with my original benefactor so I had only my enthusiasm to aid me.

I departed Cape Hillsborough long before day break with maps and sandwiches and hope. It is a beautiful drive up the Pioneer River Valley. Rolling hills and green sugar cane fields gave a prosperous veneer to the region. But there was a big drought on – no decent rain had fallen for many months. Many homes were reduced to trucking in water by tanker. At the head of the Valley – about 90 krns from Mackay – there is a steep, hairpin-bended road that climbs 1000 metres to the summit of the Eungella Range, to where my dreams would be realised. Or would they?

A large roadside sign shocked me to the boot heels. It advised that the road ahead at the mountain was being reconstructed after a series of landslides some months earlier. As well, the road would be closed from 8am to 3pm daily until further notice. I panicked badly when I realised that I still had twenty kms to go to reach the mountain and only 25 minutes to do it in. I had to average 60 kms – that sounded easy – I had been averaging about 90 kms an hour for a long while.

But in a small sugar town a few minutes later I learnt the true meaning of the word patience. There was a sugar train crossing the main road with a long load of fresh-cut cane for the local refinery. I reckon that train was 50 kms long. It blocked the road for what seemed an eternity! I swear the driver knew I was in a hurry – he blocked me on purpose, no risk! Some people firmly believe that earning a living was more important then me getting up that mountain. Enough of that. With eyes fixed on the old watch I finally screeched off for the mountain road. I could still get there by 8 am, just!

When only two or three kms short of the mountain there was the sudden, almost deafening roar of a tropical downpour smashing into the car. Two minutes later I reached the first roadworks – and the rain stopped just as suddenly as it had started. You ripper! I’d made it. The guy with the flag said I could go up.

After three hundred metres the road became steep and as slippery as wet ice. The smooth clay surface looked like it had been polished – all traction was lost and I only had a 2WD. The driver of a nearby grader told me I’d never make it to the top; there were a lot more kilometers of the same thing ahead. After just managing to turn the car around it drifted sideways into a pile of gravel. The grader got me going again and I headed for home, very dejected indeed.

For seven years I’d dreamed of spending a day in the almost mystical Eungella Ranges. Now, after manoeuvring so close that the air I breathed was flavoured by the pungent rainforest just above, I was beaten by two minutes of rain; right in the middle of a bloody drought! And I’d still like to meet up with that cane train driver some day. Because I like to think it was his intervention that caused me to abandon the high country search for orchids. When half-way back to Cape Hillsborough I turned onto a series of dirt back roads that ended up on the banks of a small creek where I was eventually successful in my quest for Dendrobium schneiderae variety major.

This creek was a beautiful one indeed. Heavy rainforest grew everywhere and the banks and sandy bars supported huge groves of Alexander Palms, the tallest palms I have ever seen. In places a dozen or so would grow to perhaps twenty metres high and yet take up no more ground space than a double bed.

Orchids were extremely numerous but were restricted to only five species that were common plus three species that were represented by only two or three plants each. By far the most abundant species was D. tetragonum and it is highly likely that during my day in this small valley that I’d seen thousands of specimens of adult size. It was staggering. The next most common species was D. speciosum variety curvicaule, followed by D. teretifolium varietyaureum, C ymbidium madidum and Oberonia palmicola.

Except for C. madidum, the other four species quite commonly grew on the trunks of the palms – particularly D. speciosum. The evidence of the drought was obvious. At least half of the previous season’s new pseudobulbs had withered before maturing. 0. palmicola had been especially hard hit by the big dry with many clumps completely dead. Sarcanthinae species were restricted to two nearly dead plants of Plectorrhiza tridentata. There were noBulbophyllums at all. I was fortunate enough to see two specimens of D. gracilicaule, a species that is not common at all in the lowland tropics.

With only an hour of daylight left I had worked my way back to my point of entry to this most beautiful gully. I estimate that I had explored upstream for around four kms and then back-tracked. As so often happens when you are out looking at orchids in the bush, my most dramatic discovery was made whilst sitting on top of a huge boulder stuffing salami and cheese sandwiches into a very empty belly.

A small green blob about ten metres up a palm tree claimed by gaze. The long, brown, arching, wire-like appendages to the clump seemed to suggest “MAJOR”. By racing about like a fool possessed I viewed this blob of green from every direction. I let out a very audible Aussie superlative when I finally allowed myself to accept that I had found D. schneiderae variety major.

A mad search then began. Every palm tree within a hundred metres, and there were more palms than metres, was scanned from top to bottom. I only had thirty minutes until dark but still managed to locate another three clumps. All of them were more than ten metres up the palms.

It was a long drive back to Cape Hillsborough and I had a lot of thoughts racing about the old head. I had no time for a repeat visit – we were leaving within 36 hours to drive 800 kms to Maryborough. I couldn’t help believing that a thorough search of the area would have revealed more specimens of Major. I cursed myself for not leaving the creek to climb up a ridge or two. It would surely be growing up on those huge emergent limbs up those ridges. Or would it be down the creek instead of up? Why didn’t I think to go down the creek?

What the hell: I’d found it. I’d found Dendrobium schneiderae variety major! I’d collected one plant – that’s all I needed – that was evidence of success. And that was a dream come true. It won’t be long until I’m back there for a full reconnaissance of my secret little creek in paradise.

Thank you Mr Train Driver . . . thank you Mr Rainstorm . . .

A poor photo of the first plant of var. major I had ever seen in situ October 1989