PERHAPS the greatest sight in the entire orchid world, in our lucky country at least, is a large colony of Sarcochilus ceciliae in full bloom. Fortunately for us, it is still relatively easy to sniff out such a colony, provided you are willing to put in a little bit of leg work and spill a drop or two of good old fashioned perspiration. For S. ceciliae is an orchid that has been relentlessly pursued by orchid enthusiasts and professional plunderers over the decades and there can be no denying that it has been severely interfered with over much of its former range. Yet despite its popularity as a horticultural subject, it is still extremely abundant over much of its surviving habitat.
Before I go any further, I find it necessary to get something off the chest that irks me no end. The uncommonly used common name for S. ceciliae is “Fairy Bells”. So there – I’ve said it – but I won’t be repeating it I can promise you. That would have to be the worst name of any orchid species! Why didn’t they call it Pink Bells or something equally as worthy? I think we would all be much more comfortable with the well-accepted handle of just plain “ceciliae”. Anything but Fairy Bells. Oops! There I go again . . .
S. ceciliae can be found from the southern tributaries of the Hastings River, on the NSW mid north coast, all the way up to the Atherton Tableland in north Queensland. The northern form has been given species status by some authors and it generally goes by the name of S. roseus. More on S. roseus later.
In northern Queensland S. ceciliae can be found at quite low altitudes of about 150 metres and within one kilometre of the coast. It is far more abundant in the higher ranges back from the coast however. In October 1995, we found it to be of sporadic occurrence in some deep gullies in the Carnarvon Gorge of Central Queensland. This would be at least 300 “crow” kilometres from the coast, On the NSW New England Tableland, there are small tufty plants growing in what amounts to snow country over 1000 metres above sea level.
S. ceciliae is almost exclusively a lithophyte with only very rare plants being found on trees. On just two occasions have I seen it growing on trees. Once high up on the side of Mt. Lindesy on the NSW/Qld border, and once in the Brisbane Forest Park. Up at Kroombit Tops near Gladstone it can be seen occasionally crowding the base of mossy tree trunks. (see pics). The normal rock-dwelling plants can be found from mossy boulders in shady creeks, right through to the complete opposite environment of scorching cliffs in full sunshine.
While it can certainly be found clinging to bare rock face with no moss or lichen to nurture it along, its most frequently chosen position is in shallow leaf litter at the base of shrubs and small trees growing in the cracks in the rock face, and which receive full sun for at least seven or eight hours a day. In this situation, S. ceciliae receives only minimal shade and relies heavily on the moisture retention ability of the leaf litter that accumulates about the root system of those protecting shrubs. Needless to say, any attempt to recreate such conditions in the average bush house would meet with complete disaster.
Without a doubt the feature of S. ceciliae that most captivates its admirers is the startling pink colour of its blooms. Rare plants are albinos and have white flowers. I’ve never come across a white one myself … nor are white forms anything like as common as they can be in some species, Dendrobium kingianum being the obvious example. In a lot of regions, particularly to the south of its range, pale pinks completely predominate. As a general rule of thumb, although certainly not infallible, the further north you travel, the more frequently you will come across plants having deep pink, almost red colours.
The plant having the darkest pink that I’ve come across in my travels grew, and still grows, on a certain volcanic plug sticking out of the dry flat plains up Rockhampton way. This beautiful clone would be as dark a red/pink as some of the best D. kingianums about the show benches. Unfortunately, it is also a very cupped clone. This does not surprise me, for over the years I have formed this theory that the darker the S. ceciliae – the more cupped it will be. This is only my unproven theory mind you, but I haven’t come across many exceptions to it so far.
Another vegetative aspect of S. ceciliae that can generally be linked to latitude is the length of the raceme. Plants growing south of the Hastings River, as well as being quite short in leaf length, have very stubby racemes … usually under six cms. long. I guess I must have seen a hundred odd plants during three or four visits to the region over the years and, despite the plants being strong and healthy, the racemes were always short.
The flowers from these parts are pale, papery and cupped in the main. Definitely not a hybridist’s dream. The same can be said of all plants that I’ve seen growing in the wilds of NSW. They are generally unimpressive examples ofS. ceciliae. Some growers apparently have found superior forms on some coastal ranges but I’ve never seen these in the flesh.
Something strange seems to happen to S. ceciliae once it crosses the border from NSW into Queensland. For starters, it becomes an extremely abundant species, so long as you know the right spot to look. And the tufty little runts of NSW suddenly take on gigantic proportions – so far as vegetative characteristics go. I have no hesitation in saying that plants occurring from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast Hinterland are the largest plants, on average, that I know of anywhere. And it is possible to find clumps as large as the average dining room table.
Leaf length frequently reaches ten or eleven cms and these are mostly very thick and succulent. I have taken photos of individual plants, as opposed to clumps, that were as large as the cameras case I placed beside them to lend some proportion. Raceme length also shoots up to about sixteen cms maximum. Unfortunately, the flower size, colour and shape remains just as poor as in NSW plants. But the thing that really lets them down is raceme habit. I haven’t as yet seen one that doesn’t fall over when the first few buds open up.
Moving northwards, the next region where I have personal experience with this species is in the Rockhampton to Gladstone district. In the mountains just inland from the coast, S. ceciliae reaches its horticultural pinnacle. It is extremely abundant in some parts of this area, although it doesn’t seem to form clumps any larger than a dinner plate.
I have seen plants from here with racemes reaching 35 cms long – that’s 14 inches in pounds, shillings and pence. Some are often thicker than a match and stay erect until the last flower fades. This can take up to four months, for S. ceciliae is a progressive flowerer. Naturally, the longer the raceme, the longer a plant will stay in flower.
The really amazing thing about these plants is the flower size and colour. I have a couple of plants that boast 14 mm flowers – huge for the species. The average colour is what I can best Rockhampton plants are very dark pink-red indeed as I mentioned at the start.
North of Rockhampton, I have had no personal encounters with S. ceciliae in the wild. From what I can gather its occurrence becomes patchy due to extensive areas of very dry, unsuitable habitat. It is certainly present in parts of the western Eungella region inland from Mackay. And it is well known from the vicinity of Townsville where the very beautiful clone known far and wide as ‘Lucky Strike’ had its origins. This is the ‘type’ locality for S. ceciliae.
We next come to the Atherton Tableland where the form of S. cecilia e growing in the dry harsh country to the west and north of this region has been given the species rank of S. roseus by most authors. This determination is mainly based on the structure of the labellum. In S. ceciliae , there is a distinct gap between the frontal lobe and the side lobes, whereas in S. roseus the lobes are fused together so that no gap is present. But it is my experience that the amount of fusion between these lobes is extremely variable in all plants in most Queensland colonies of S. ceciliae.
I have seen plants from the Gladstone area that would have to be classified as S. roseus, despite them growing side by side with normal plants of S. ceciliae. Conversely, I have flowered selfings of ‘bonafide’ plants of S. roseus only to see gaps in between those side and front lobes. There are a couple of other differences that differentiate the two forms and these are quite variable as well. Things such as the number of bracts on the peduncle and deeper flower colour. In the minds of many people, S. roseus is probably just a norther extension of S. ceciliae.
Years ago, I couldn’t grow a plant of S. ceciliae to save my life. These days I must say that I am completely amazed at how good my plants look. So what is the difference now? When I first started out, I followed the accepted practice of putting the plants in pots. I must have over watered or something. Most of them died after just a few months usually. Eventually I decided to grow them as mounted plants. I tied a few on to all types of slabs and from then on I rarely lost one.
Without a doubt, slabs of Cyathea australis tree fern fibre have been the most successful. Roots have generally romped away in a huge way. There can be no doubt that S. ceciliae resents having wet feet. So if you must pot your plants, be sure to keep your mix really open. Trying to achieve the ideal mix is quite hard when it comes to deflasking seedlings. These will dry out too quickly if put on a slab but if your mix is too damp they will also die. I’ve also used with success other substrates including hardwood fence palings and virgin Portuguese cork.
Usually the mix that suits a seedling will be too damp to suit the adult plant, so once the seedling has hardened off and began to make root growth, consider putting it out on a slab before it flowers. Having said all this, you often see some superbly grown adult plants of S. ceciliae in pots, so some growers have the knack. But if you are not one of them, try the slab method and your troubles will be gone. Shade level doesn’t seem to worry this orchid. It will flower OK in medium shade to full sun. Add some fertiliser to the water occasionally to encourage thick leaves and thick roots.
S. ceciliae is yet another Sarcanthinae species that can topple off its perch and point its feet skywards while you go to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Plants can go along famously until the crown will drop its younger leaf and the centre dies out. The clump will linger on for months until it just defoliates and calls it quits. Excess moisture is what I think causes this mongrel issue. Aim to get your young plant loaded with roots quickly and once you get them then stop watering pretty much unless the weather is stinking hot. It may work or it may not.
S. ceciliae is rather susceptible to scale attack. I’ve had several kinds of scale lodge stubbornly down in the leaf axils, and on the racemes between the buds, where they can be very difficult to remove by hand. I don’t use chemicals to control scale myself, preferring to poke about with a toothpick and the old fingers instead. But occasional infestations can be heavy and it’s then that I spray an insecticide, usually a systemic type, but never ever white oil. I’ve killed many native orchids with white oil and won’t touch it now. I think it just clogs up the stomata on the leaves too much and brings respiration and transpiration to a halt. While poking about the leaf axils, be very cautious. The leaves are extremely brittle and will snap away from the plant all too easily.
Finally, if you want to get a few specimens of this beautiful species for your own bush house, I strongly recommend that you buy a flask of plants from a reputable nursery. This is one species where anything in a flask will be far superior to just about any plant that you’ll stumble on to in the bush. If you look after them properly, they’ll flower in about two to three years or so. Considering how long some species take, two years is just a blink. And at around $50, or just two dollars for each seedling, you will soon have a flush of pink adorning your bush house bench, or wall, which your friends will quickly admire and always comment on.