Although it still only May, the wild flowers around the property are starting to grow. Small-Mosquito Orchids are flowering again; I see Climbing Sundews and Twining Fringe-lily stems winding around Bracken; the Guinea Flower and native Pea bushes are greening up and many other signs of the wildflowers to come are emerging after the recent rain. When I post a photograph of an Orchid, Lily or other wild flower I am often asked ‘How do you find them?” or “Where do you find them?”
Although this will be my third winter here, I still regard myself as a beginner when it comes to hunting for wildflowers. I know most of the species we have growing here and, from previous seasons, roughly where to look on our property to find them. Put me in a different environment and the situation would be very different. However, I have found a few methods which help me to find and photograph wild flowers. The tips below are based on my personal experience in learning about Australian native flowers growing here, in the bush on our land.
1. Find someone with local knowledge of wild flowers
When we first moved to our property, a friend offered to do an Orchid survey. We said yes, with great hope, expecting her to find nothing. We didn’t know what we were looking for, so we saw bracken, trees and leaf litter, with specks of green here and there. No flowers. Our friend walked the tracks in our bushland with us, pointing out many different species of native plants, including many orchids. We had been walking on and over orchid leaves without knowing what they were. Nothing beats first hand experience. Good places to find local knowledge include your local Field Naturalist Clubs. They often have excursions and field trips with experts leading the way.
2. Invest in some good Field Guides (or borrow some)
Take some time to work out which species will flower in each season, or sometimes in each month. Narrow down your search to plants you can expect to see right now. What conditions do they like? How large are they? (Or in Australia, how small is the better question.) Small facts can really help. For example, it took me two years to find Helmet Orchids on our land, even though my friend had told me we had them in that first winter. When I read that Helmet Orchids liked to grow on slight slopes, I saw the landscape differently, looked in different places, and found them. Another good fact to know is that Parsons Bands Orchids emerge after the first heavy rainfall of Autumn. It rained, I waited three or four days and sure enough, there they were!
3. Study the shape and colour of the leaves
Many of Australia’s wild flowers are tiny, and many plants have very distinctive leaves. I find it immensely helpful to refer to field guides, or online websites which show photographs of the plant I want to find. It is usually easy to find information about the leaf shape, size, colour, whether it is hairy or smooth, whether the leaves are found in certain formations, and more! As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I can see leaves emerging now. When it comes time for the flowers to bloom, I will know where to look.
4. Walk at different times of the day
Vary the time of day when you walk. I find that the change in the direction of light from morning to afternoon highlights different parts of the bushland, allowing different plants to stand out. Often I find a plant in the morning and I can’t see it in the afternoon (or vice versa), If I go walking the next day, at the same time I first saw it, the plant is visible again.
5. Look underneath vegetation at the side of the track
On our property, I rarely have to go wading thigh deep in bracken to see anything. The vast majority of my photographs were taken on our walking tracks. Some plants grow right in the middle of the track and others are just off to the side, hiding beneath bracken fronds or emerging from beneath fallen branches. I recommend leaving them as you found them – if they are beneath bracken leaves they are better sheltered and protected, often lasting longer than those in the open. It also helps to hide them from wildlife – flowers tend to be a tasty snack for Swamp Wallabies and Possums.
6. Learn the distinguishing characteristics of the flowers
Often, Australian native plants have similar species or sub-species – plants which look very much the same, but are actually different. For example, the Pink Fingers Orchid I have listed on the A-Z Species list of this blog is only one of many different sub-species of Orchids which look practically the same. To distinguish the other species and sub-species, it is necessary to observe the curve of the column, whether the petals/sepals are curved or pointed, how many stripes or dots on the labellum and other minuscule distinctions.
7. Photograph more than one example of each species
If you are lucky enough to find more than one plant in a particular species flowering at the same time, photograph flowers in different locations, making sure you have the angle which will show you the distinguishing features of that species. When you load your photos onto the computer, You may find, as I did, a colour variation. One of the Parsons Bands I photographed on a day when they were everywhere turned out to be a green or albino form. I had no idea about this when I photographed it as the flower was too small to see in detail with the naked eye.
8. Take a camera which has the ability to shoot Macro photographs
Field Guides show illustrations of flowers larger than life. To see the parts of the flowers which indicate species and sub-species, you will need the ability to take Macro photographs – especially with the smaller orchids and lilies.
9. Landmarks, GPS and other markers
Often, you may come across a flower in bud form. To photograph the open flower you will need to find it again! Unfortunately, I don’t have GPS on my camera, so I resort to landmarks. As I know our property very well, I usually can find the flowers by taking note of familiar markers. Occasionally we place wire cages around plants with buds to stop them being eaten, but you won’t be able to do this in open bushland. One lesson I have learned is that it is prudent to check every day. Some flowers open quickly and the window of opportunity to photograph them at their best is small.
10. Share your finds with other enthusiasts
One of the best things I have done is to share my photographs of flowers and other species in this blog. I find the generosity of readers in sharing knowledge to help me learn is amazing. If I can’t identify a species, most of the time someone can point me in the right direction. If I identify a plant incorrectly, someone usually gives me the correct name and often a link where I can find out more. I’m always thankful when a person goes to the trouble of correcting me because usually it leads me somewhere new and often it saves me a lot of time.
If you have more tips for beginners, please add them in the comments below this post. Let’s see how many we can list!