The Cooktown orchid, Dendrobium phalaenopsis, is the state flower of Queensland.
Originally thought to be Dendrobium bigibbum, the correct botanical name for the Cooktown orchid has been the subject of speculation and debate.
In fact, when the Cooktown orchid was proclaimed the floral emblem of Queensland in 1959, it was under the botanical name of Dendrobium bigibbum var phalaenopsis. But it appeared that when British botanist John Lindley (1799-1865) named the plant, it was not to be found near Cooktown, the north Queensland town after which the orchid was named.
In 1880, New South Wales Surveyor General Robert FitzGerald described Dendrobium phalaenopsis as "obtained near Cooktown." A color plate of the orchid, which he published in December that year, is said to clearly illustrate the plant now known as the Cooktown orchid which FitzGerald described as "obtained in northern Queensland."
Genus and species
The generic name Dendrobium comes the Greek dendron (tree) and bios (life). Many species of this genus are to be found on tree trunks and branches.
The specific name phalaenopsis comes from the Greek phalaina (moth). The flower of the Cooktown orchid resembles a moth.
Leaves and flowers
The Australian National Botanic Gardens describe the plants as "up to 80 centimetres in height, comprising 3-20 flowering canes up to 1.5 cm in diameter. Three to six lance-shaped leaves, 5-12 centimetres long, are arranged on the upper parts of the pseudobulbs. The stems bearing the flowers are 10 to 40 centimetres long, carrying up to 20 flowers. Each flower is about 3 to 6 centimetres wide and usually colored deep to pale lilac, or rarely white. It usually flowers in the dry season in the wild, but may flower throughout the year in cultivation."
Where it grows
The Cooktown orchid is to be found in its natural habitat in northern Queensland, from Johnston River near Innisfail south of Cairns to Iron Range in the Cape York Peninsula.
Although found in tropical districts with very high summer rainfall, the Cooktown orchid is not a rainforest species. It grows in exposed situations usually attached to tree trunks.
The Cooktown orchid may be propagated from seed and grown outdoors as far south as Brisbane attached by wire or twine to the eastern or northern side of a tree. It can also be grown in pots using fern fibre as growing medium.
See All About Orchids for information on growing and caring for orchids.
(Source: Australian National Botanic Gardens.)