Growing the wild orchids of Nillumbik

In the foothills of north-eastern Melbourne, from Eltham to Kinglake, is the Nillumbik Shire Council. It is home to a diverse fauna including the Powerful Owl, Swift Parrot, Brush-tailed Phascogale and Tree Goanna. Nillumbik also has over 700 different species of indigenous plants, including more than 90 species of orchids!


Nillumbik Shire Council (click for a larger image)

Many of these native orchids have specific relationships with fungi and wasps. Orchid seed is very fine and dust-like and, as a result, does not contain enough energy for the seed to germinate (no endosperm). These orchids will only grow if they have been infected with fungi. This relationship is mutual, where the fungi gains sugars from the orchid in exchange for minerals from the fungi. Orchids are also sexually deceptive. They will trick the male of a specific wasp species into thinking it’s the female, by releasing pheromones similar to the female wasp. Because of these specific mutualisms, it is difficult to propagate and reintroduce orchids back into the wild.

Nearly half of the local plant extinctions that have occurred in Melbourne were from the Orchid family. Orchids are vulnerable to grazing and weed invasion, and make up a disproportionate number of threatened species in Victoria. Furthermore, scientists have predicted that Melbourne will lose half of its native plant species over the next century, with Orchids bearing the brunt.

In this post, I catch up with Meg Cullen from Nillumbik to learn more about the Conservation Corridors orchid project.

Hi Meg, thanks for catching up. Let’s start with bit about yourself and how you got into the industry…

Thanks John. I always knew that I wanted to work in the environmental field and decided at 9 years old that I wanted to be a zoologist. In year 12 I found out about a Conservation Ecology course at Deakin University. I then stayed at Deakin for 11 years, and did an Honours year and a PhD.

While I was finishing my PhD I started working with Birdlife Australia – I still work there as well as at Nillumbik – and have been there for 8 years. I have a background in threatened species conservation, in particular working with communities and volunteers to achieve conservation outcomes.

What is your role at Nillumbik?

For the last 5 months I have been coordinating the Nillumbik Conservation Corridors Project . This project involves working with 9 different Landcare groups, which have recently formed the Nillumbik Landcare Network.

The corridor runs through the northern and eastern sections of Nillumbik, and we’re focusing on works that will help conserve some of the threatened species in the area, such as the Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart, Round-leaf Pomaderris and some of the rare orchids.

What you are doing with your rare orchids?

The conservation of orchids has been going on for a long time in Nillumbik, with some ground-breaking methods being implemented by local experts, so it was already something that had been discussed by a number of different partners and members in the Landcare group.

The Corridors Project has funded surveys on private land to look at where orchid species occur –  they may not have been surveyed before – and identify new populations of some of these rarer orchids. It has also helped fund and coordinate fencing: one of the main ways to protect orchids is through small enclosure fencing that stops grazing from wallabies, kangaroos, rabbits, and also White-winged Choughs, who eat the tubers of the orchids. In some areas the orchid populations are caged so the birds can’t get in, and in other areas they’re protected by a rabbit/grazing proof fence.

How did the propagation side of things start up?

We’ve been working with Cam Beardsell who is an ecologist and works for Parks Victoria, but also lives in the shire and manages orchids on private property. His amazing work, on species such as Rosella Spider-orchid, has saved species from extinction.

Rosella Spider-orchid

Rosella Spider-orchid

The project is also involved with the Royal Botanical Gardens,  Australasian Native Orchid Society (ANOS) and Parks Victoria. Together with these partnerships and the Landcare groups, we’ve been working to propagate four species of Orchids: the Wine-lipped Spider-orchid, Rosella Spider-orchid, Emerald-lip Greenhood and the Woodland Plume-orchid, all of which are rare and threatened.

Wine-lipped Spider-orchid

Wine-lipped Spider-orchid

The Rosella Spider-orchid is only found in Nillumbik.  It only occurs in four areas – one small population in a council reserve, two on Parks Victoria land and another on private property.

All the permits for seed and fungi collection are done through the Royal Botanical Gardens and ANOS – so they collect the seed and Cam from Parks Victoria also collects some seed as well. Neil Anderton, from ANOS, is one of our key contacts  – he is a volunteer who does a lot of the lab side of work and recently gave me a tour of their work.

Carefully collecting a sample in the field of the Woodland Plume-orchid

Carefully collecting a sample in the field of the Woodland Plume-orchid

“people who volunteer their time on these conservation projects make such a difference – the lack of funding in all things environmental means that it falls to those who can volunteer their time and expertise to do a lot of the work”

How do they collect and grow the orchids?

Someone from the ANOS and the Royal Botanical Gardens comes to the site and, very carefully, takes a sample of a small area at the root of the orchid. They take this back to the labs at the Royal Botanical Gardens and propagate the fungi from the samples. The root samples are cleaned to remove any contamination and then they are grown in a petri dish, which contains an agar and oat mix.  If it’s successful, they can put the orchid seeds on top of the fungi and they’ll germinate in association with that fungi.

Fungi sample grown from a root sample of the Woodland Plume-orchid

Fungi sample grown from a root sample of the Woodland Plume-orchid

It took a while for  any success, but in the second year, three of the four species germinated well. This year we collected some more fungi for the Woodland Plume-orchid and we have finally had some good success with this species.

First year growth of the Rosella Spider-orchid

First year growth of the Rosella Spider-orchid

That’s great! When will the orchids be reintroduced?

We’re at an early stage and so it will be probably another 2 years before the orchids will be ready to be introduced back out into the wild. It’s probably a 4-5 year process before they actually get out there, so yes it’s quite a long journey.

Rosella Spider-orchids flowering in the green house at the Royal Botanic Gardens

Rosella Spider-orchids flowering in the green house at the Royal Botanic Gardens

“ a lot of the orchid conservation work that is going on, and that I’ve read about, is that a lot of these populations are being hand pollinated because the pollinators aren’t there or they’re not there in high enough numbers. It’s very time consuming to head out there and pick the right time. You can’t really expect to keep hand pollinating year after year to keep the population going – we need to look at increasing pollination naturally”

How do you prepare your sites for reintroduction?

The next step of the project is to form an expert group that can give advice on the location of re-introductory sites.  We will then start preparing the sites a year or so before the propagated orchids are ready to go out. A fair amount of site preparation needs to be done. You need the right fungi in the soil for the orchids to be able to grow, but I’ve also heard about people creating the right moss beds for re-introduction. The sites will need to be fenced and grassy weeds will be controlled, as these can smother and outcompete the orchids. Enrichment planting is also important at some sites.  This involves planting some of the key species that attract orchid pollinators that might be missing at a site.

How will the Landcare groups be involved?

About 60% of bushland in Nillumbik is on private land which makes it really important to get people on board to manage the bush.  Some of the  re-introductory sites will be on private land and many of  these rare orchids occur on private property as well.


“we’re really lucky because we have some really passionate community and Landcare members who initiate a lot different projects and inspire others to be involved – I think that’s been a big benefit of working in the Nillumbik area”

We are putting together a manual that will include guidelines for private property owners on how to manage rarer orchids – it will be really useful to have clear and detailed instructions you can give to locals so they can help us to protect these species. In conjunction with the guidelines, we have also run workshops to encourage landowners to manage their orchid populations.

Any tips for land managers who want to do what you’re doing?

My biggest tip is to create partnerships with different groups, organisations and land managers in the area. We’ve worked with Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water, the department within Nillumbik Council that manages the reserves, private land holders, Royal Botanical Gardens and ANOS.

all these different groups coming together to work on the same project is crucial because we couldn’t do it without them”

If you would like to learn more about the project you can contact Meg Cullen on 9433 3214 or


2 thoughts on “Growing the wild orchids of Nillumbik

  1. Really interesting. So much painstaking work going on so quietly. it’s not surprising that a culture like ours totally disrupts these delicate ecological systems but I find it incredible that – a few of us, can figure out processes like orchid regeneration and then duplicate them artificially, and persevere till they’re successful. Thanks so much for sharing this John.


  2. Great interview John! Very useful information on orchid reintroductions and what’s required for success. I’ll be forwarding this link around to our team as we have a community engagement day coming up next year with a focus on native pollinators and linking native orchids, and the need to promote species that attract orchid pollinators, will help to build the awareness of ecological relationships / mutualism.


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