Orchid hunting in the Remutaka Range

Orchid hunting in the Remutaka Range

When we think about about orchids we usually think about tropical islands or unexplored jungle-covered mountains in distant lands. This is not always the case, and many orchids are also found in temperate and cold regions of the world. Some orchids have even reached the Subantarctic islands where, not so long ago, two orchid species were discovered.

There are over 100 species of orchids in New Zealand. Some of them are very common and a trip to forested or alpine areas is all it takes to find several native terrestrial or epiphytic orchids. Recently I led a group of scientists and postgraduate students to several orchid-rich spots in the Remutaka Range, only about 40 minutes from Wellington City. The aim of our trip was to find the different forms of the native Spider orchid Nematoceras trilobum in flower.

A plant sitting in grass with a broad green leaf at the bottom and a purple flower with another green leaf sitting on top of it like a hat. There are tendrils growing vertically to almost twice the height of the flower.
Spider orchid (Nematoceras trilobum agg.). Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa

In our two-day outing we found 11 species of orchids. Some of them had already finished flowering, some were in full bloom and others were just starting to come out from their winter rest.

Gnat orchid (Cyrtostylis rotundifolia). Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa
Helmet orchid (Corybas cheesemanii). Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa
Green hood orchid (Pterostylis alobula). Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa
Little moa orchid (Drymoanthus adversus, epiphytic). Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa
Pygmy orchid, piripiri (Ichthyostomum pygmaeum, epiphytic). Largest leaves are about 1cm long! Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa

Luckily our trip was very successful and we found the Spider orchid N. trilobum flowering in several spots. It has been suggested this orchid attracts its pollinators, tiny flies commonly known as fungus gnats, by mimicking the fruiting body of small mushrooms on which female fungus gnats lay their eggs. Understanding how this system works in one of the goals of my research project “Does every spider orchid in New Zealand have its fungus gnat?” funded by a Fast-Start Marsden Grant.

Spider orchid (Nematoceras trilobum agg.), my finger = 1.5cm. Photo by Carlos Lehnebach, Te Papa

A way to demonstrate how similar the orchid and the fungi look to the fungus gnats is comparing their patterns of  uv light reflectance. Anne Gaskett and Emma Bodley (University of Auckland) measured uv reflectance in some of the flowers we found this weekend. They will also investigate if the scent produced by the Spider orchid is similar to that of nearby fungi. Alastair Robertson and Chau Phing Ong (Massey University), are investigating how these orchids are pollinated and, with the help of Mary Morgan-Richards (Massey University), they will use DNA techniques to identify some of the gnats visiting the flowers.

Orchid hunting in the Remutaka (Emma Bodley, Anne Gaskett, Chau Phing Ong, Alastair Robertson & Carlos A. Lehnebach). Photo by Jonathan Frericks


  1. A marvellous example of natural history! Such beautiful plants to study and with so much yet to be learned. It would be interesting to know what wavelengths of light actually reach the ground floor where they grow and whether this has influenced the evolution of chloroplast in some of the taxa. The two spellings of R-mutaka are interesting: which should it be?

  2. Rimutaka Ranges.. Or Remutaka?!
    You have used the latter in your Orchid literature.

  3. Impressive stuff. These are real gems. Were these found on the tracks from Catchpool Valley in Rimutaka Forest Park in Wainuiomata?

  4. thank you for this, very interesting, nice to think my local Rimutaka gives out another secret! Look forward to learning more wonderful finds.

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