New Zealand has over 120 native orchids, belonging to about 30 groups or genera. Some species are shared with Australia or have close relatives there, but over half are found nowhere else.
Orchids are flowering perennial plants, belonging to the Orchidaceae family. Most New Zealand orchids grow as small ground herbs, dying back to an underground tuber after flowering and fruiting.
Eight species are epiphytes – they grow perched on trees or rocks. These ones don’t die back, and have thicker leaves.
Orchids are found throughout the country, from coastal shores to alpine herb fields. Many species favour soils of low fertility, and poorly drained sites. Common habitats are mature forest, open scrublands and swamps.
Orchids produce millions of dust-like seeds that can be blown long distances. The tiny seeds lack food reserves and cannot germinate until they have been infected by a soil fungus that supplies nutrients for the seed. This partnership persists throughout the life of the orchid, even when it develops green leaves and produces its own food through photosynthesis.
Some species are known as parasitic orchids. They depend wholly on their fungus partner because they lack chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesise food. New Zealand’s parasitic orchids are the potato orchids (Gastrodia species), a spider orchid (Molloybas cryptanthus) and Danhatchia australis.
Traditionally, Māori people ate the tubers of orchids as snacks. Anthropologist Elsdon Best reported that the tubers of the potato orchid Gastrodia cunninghamii were dug in winter and dried by exposure. Known as perei, they were roasted over a fire, or cooked in a steam oven.
Bizarre-shaped blooms are the most distinctive feature of orchids, and their common names – such as the spider orchid, flying duck orchid and helmet orchid – often reflect this. The showy part consists of an outer whorl of three sepals and an inner whorl of three petals. In most species the upper (dorsal) sepal forms a hood, which protects the interior reproductive parts of the flower from the weather. The middle petal (lip, or labellum) often forms an elaborately decorated landing platform to attract insects. The flowers of sun orchids (Thelymitra species) are unusual as their sepals and petals look the same.
The flowers of New Zealand orchids are small, ranging from tiny (3-millimetre diameter in Ichthyostomun pygmaeum) to the 5-centimetre-high hooded flower of tutukiwi, Pterostylis banksii.
Male and female reproductive parts in the middle of orchid flowers are fused into a structure called the column. Variations in the column and other flower parts promote insect pollination, or as is more common in New Zealand, self-pollination. The detailed structure of the column is important in identifying a species.
In 2004, two Czech orchid growers were prosecuted for trying to smuggle native orchids out of New Zealand. One was an inspector in the Czech Environmental Inspection Agency, the other the dean of medicine at Olomouc University. They were filmed taking orchids from a national park, and had over 100 plants when they were arrested. It is illegal to trade in orchids taken from the wild.
A significant number of New Zealand orchids are rare, and some are endangered.
The rarest is the almost-black helmet orchid (Anzybas carsei), which holds onto a precarious existence in a single Waikato swamp.
Draining swamps and wetlands, and clearing forest for urban sprawl destroys the orchid habitat. The New Zealand Native Orchid Group was formed in 1982 to act as a forum for those interested in these unusual plants, and to promote their conservation.
Epiphytes are plants that grow on another plant, or on a structure such as a rock or post.
Epiphytic orchids are often found in mature lowland forest, where there are large trees and rocky outcrops where they can perch. Included are:
Some forest-floor orchids favour well-lit sites, and it is worth searching for these along forest tracks. Tutukiwi (Pterostylis banksii), a large greenhood, is conspicuous in spring and early summer, as is Chiloglottis cornuta, with its twin blue-green leaves and almost entirely green flower.
Botanist Lucy Moore noted of the bamboo orchid (Winika cunninghamii), ‘Its old Maori name, Winika, was given in 1838 to a big war canoe because this orchid grew on the totara tree whose trunk was hollowed out to form the hull. Te Winika was smashed by the military leader von Tempsky in 1863 but after reconstruction was used on ceremonial occasions on the Waikato River from 1938 to 1971, and was then donated to the Hamilton Museum.’ 1
Two greenhoods, the winter-flowering Pterostylis brumalis and P. rubricaulis, are restricted to kauri forest in the north of New Zealand. New Zealand’s largest spider orchid (Nematoceras macranthum) prefers a damp, shady spot near a stream.
Beech forests generally contain forest-floor orchids that differ from those found in nearby broadleaf forests. These plants include:
A few forest-floor orchids have grown in conifer plantations throughout the country: Chiloglottis cornuta is especially common in this habitat, along with Thelymitra longifolia, Microtis unifolia, Adenochilus gracilis, Gastrodia species and the small greenhoods Pterostylis trullifolia and P. alobula.
Regenerating shrublands and open scrub provide good habitat for many orchids. Spring and summer is the time to find many in flower on dry clay banks, especially the sun orchids (Thelymitra species), Petalochilus species, and the horned orchid (Orthoceras novae-zeelandiae).
Pterostylis tasmanica, a rare species found in a few scattered places from the Far North to Wellington, is also in flower during spring. Aporostylis bifolia, with two unequal-sized leaves, enjoys a damp habitat in high altitude scrub and sends up a stem bearing a small white flower in summer.
Acianthus sinclairii, a gnat orchid with heart-shaped leaves, flowers in winter, as does the common spider orchid Nematoceras trilobum.
Many orchids flourish beside lakes and streams, and in swamps, bogs and damp grasslands. Pink-flowered Spiranthes novae-zelandiae is found in wet dunes as well as damp alpine grasslands. It is New Zealand’s only spiral orchid, a group more common in the northern hemisphere, where they are known as ladies’ tresses.
Thelymitra cyanea, a swamp-dwelling sun orchid, produces vivid blue flowers with dark stripes each summer. Waireia stenopetala is an alpine orchid, favouring wet scrub and bogs. Its leathery hood is large enough to cover and protect the delicate flower parts against the elements.
A few orchids have a tenuous hold in New Zealand, growing in a single colony, or a few scattered sites. Because they are common in Australia, it is likely that they are recent arrivals in New Zealand: their seeds would have been blown across the Tasman Sea or carried by migrating birds. Among them are:
Cooper, Dorothy. A field guide to the New Zealand native orchids. Wellington: Price Milburn, for the Wellington Orchid Society, 1981.
Johns, John, and Brian Molloy. Native orchids of New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1983.
Moore, L. B., and E. Edgar. Flora of New Zealand, Vol. 2. Wellington: Government Printer, 1970.
St George, Ian. The nature guide to New Zealand native orchids. Auckland: Godwit, 1999.
St George, Ian. ‘Orchids are everywhere.’ Forest & Bird 293 (August 1999): 32–35.
St George, Ian, and others. Field guide to the New Zealand orchids. Wellington: New Zealand Native Orchid Group, 2005.