IF YOU want to see just how attractive some of our native orchid species can be, just take a long look at Papillilabium beckleri the next time you get the chance. Unfortunately for novices, this species doesn’t have a common name. Also, while it is a common species in the wild, it is not often seen in captivity.
Even at Spring Shows it’s unusual to see more than three of four specimens benched at a time. It’s only the small band of die-hard species growers in Sydney Group of ANOS that seem to have any plants at all. And this is despite P. beckleri being quite common in areas to the north, south and west of Sydney – literally sitting right on our doorstep.
P. beckleri is a small member of the Sarcanthinae sub-tribe and looks for all the world like a juvenile plant of Plectorrhiza tridentata to the uninitiated. For this reason, many people may have been staring P. beckleri right in the face for years without realising it. They both grow in typical Sarcanthinae style i.e. in the twigs of trees near or over-hanging water courses. However, P. beckleri tends to have red/purplish pigments in its leaves whereas Plectorrhiza leaves are generally ordinary green. But this observation cannot be taken as gospel.
To the experienced observer the two can be separated rather easily. The main points to look for are the much thinner old racemes on P. beckleri and its much narrower leaves. The leaves nearly always project well forward of the crown, whereas P. tridentata leaves are wider, project at nearly 180 degrees from its crown and inter-leaf spacing is quite wide (up to l cm), whereas P. beckleri has no obvious inter-leaf spacing at all.
P. beckleri rarely has more than five leaves and these reach a maximum length of around 65 mms. The vast majority of plants would be far smaller however and commonly have only 2 or 3 leaves. The stems are rarely longer than 50 mm in P. beckleri but P. tridentata frequently has stems up to 500 mms or more long. The racemes of P. beckleri are up to 75 mm long and support around a dozen flowers, arranged spirally around the rhacis . . . which adds considerably to the charm of the species.
The flowers are 7 to 8 mms deep and generally a light creamy green in colour with a splash of vivid red/purple on the column and anther. But the most startling aspect of the flowers has to be the perfume; spicy sweet and extremely potent for its size. In fact, it is potent enough to take your breath away if sampled in a confined area on a hot day.
P. beckleri is distributed from the extreme northern parts of the Illawarra in the south, all the way up to south eastern Queensland where I have seen it growing in the Brisbane Forest Park and in plantation hoop pines near Kenilworth. It can be found from near sea level (in the south) up to about 800 metres above sea level (mid north coast). It tends to avoid the higher areas where most other temperate Sarcanthinae species would be quite happy to colonise.
P. beckleri is a colony forming species that reaches its greatest diversity in smallish shrubs, such as water gums and lilypillies, along watercourses. It occasionally occurs away from creeks however. The biggest plants I’ve seen grow on the lower branches of old Black Wattles to the south of Sydney. These trees are a hundred or more metres into open forest and away from the creek. Hopefully this extensive colony of super plants escaped the January bush fires that cut a swathe through the region.
P. beckleri is easy to grow so long as root production is the yardstick you use to measure your success. The roots are fast growing and seem to readily attach themselves to any host material. Bamboo sticks are a great host but so too is cork and hardwood strips. Long and skinny is the way to go. Moisture retentive materials need not be added as the roots tend to avoid moss and spongy surfaces. However, P. beckleri still has a reputation as a hard to grow species – and with good reason.
Seemingly healthy specimens frequently develop a rot in the crown and die within a matter of days. By the time the rot is noticed it’s simply too late to treat the problem. This is quite likely a fungal problem, although a bacterial culprit may be at work. The speed at which an infected specimen collapses is staggering. Several other Sarcanthinae species are susceptible to the same condition e.g. Sarcochilus australis, S. dilatatus, S. hillii and Schistotylus purpuratus.
Prevention is better than cure in all these cases and this is where diligent cultural practice looms high on a good orchid growers agenda. I also try to keep it high on my agenda Ha Ha. Good culture in this instance means rigid adherence to the old doctrines of high air movement combined with controlling the application of water. Too much is dangerous and is just not necessary. P. beckleri is well able to tolerate reasonably dry conditions. And if the truth be known, the driest of bush houses is probably far damper than the natural habitat in which many of the smaller Sarcs dwell for extended periods of the year anyway.
For anybody desiring to try their hand at growing this little gem, the prospect is not all that encouraging. I cannot recall ever having seen it on the list of orchids available from any nursery at all. And I’ve never seen it in flask either. As well, there has never been a hybrid registered with P. beckleri as a parent. But in the years ahead I feel it will turn up as a parent as hybridists explore and strive to extend the horizons of colours with Sarc. hybrids.
This last bit of journalistic bulldust reminds me that I haven’t said a word at all regards the feeding P. beckleri. Like most small Sarcanthinae species, P. beckleri is not a gross feeder. My experiences suggest that it will exist well on small, irregular applications of fertiliser, as all of my plants have to anyway. Controlling the dreaded crown rot should be the only difficulty intending growers of P. beckleri encounter. Firstly, you will need to get yourself a plant, and that’s where your trouble will no doubt start. Don’t give up though, you should be able to to locate a specimen if you try.