My Search For An Elusive Queen

At the beginning of my second Chalk Hill novel, The Cafe By The Bridge, I wrote this dedication:

Searching for, or ‘hunting’ for (as we call it) West Australian Native Orchids is one of my great joys in life. It’s something that I have to thank my Dad for, as it is one of my earliest memories (and one of my only early memories) of him: walking in our native bush and looking for orchids.

Fast forward on some forty years, and on a return to this south west area in 2013, I was able to rekindle my love with the native bush, and its beautiful flora, particularly its orchids.

Some of the most intriguing are incredibly small. Flying duck orchids and warty hammers, and ‘king in his carriage’. And they are very hard to photograph for a non-photographer like me. I must look hilarious—lying on my tummy across a sandy track, trying to get my phone to focus on a delicate flower.

One orchid I always knew about, but had never found, was the Queen of Sheba orchid. She is like the ‘holy grail’ of orchid land here in the West. Indeed, I actually thought the orchid was extinct, until my friend Belinda (in the acknowledgements for Cafe), told me she’d found the orchid in the great southern region of WA, and that indeed while the Queen was extinct in our far south west corner, she could still be found in a few select parts of the state.

Well! Excitement much? Long live the Queen! And of course then I had to write the Queen of Sheba into Chalk Hill country, and into The Cafe By The Bridge.

This year, I had the great (ahem) honour, of turning 50. (That, by the way, is a whole other blog topic for another day. Suffice to say – anybody out there who isn’t a fan of the whole ‘turning 50’ thing… I hear you!)

My birthday present to myself, and my family’s present to me, was that we would spend a weekend at Albany in August and we’d go ‘hunting’ for the Queen of Sheba and we wouldn’t rest until we found her!

The first stop we made was near a signboard on the road to Mount Martin National Park. We leapt out of the car and I went wandering up a sandy track, and then down a cut-out off the track (like a drainage escape). And lo, about fifteen metres along this cut out, I saw this:

Not quite out yet!

Although I knew the Queen of Sheba was called a ‘sun orchid’ I didn’t actually realise that she opens and closes with the sun. It’s not much use looking for her on a cloudy day. And this gorgeous little girl wasn’t yet open at 10am. What I didn’t know was whether it would take this orchid a week to open properly? Or an hour or two? I wasn’t even certain it was a Queen, but it was the closest thing I’d seen to a Queen… definitely promising! But we left her to look elsewhere.

After about two more hours searching several different locations and climbing in the beautiful Mount Martin National Park, where we saw some absolutely beautiful scenery and some stunning plants…

…but nothing close to resembling a Queen of Sheba. And so we decided to go back to our first sighting ‘just in case’ she was now out.

My son leapt out of the car and ran up the track, wanting to be first to see ‘her’. Ten seconds or so later, he called out: ‘it’s open. It’s open!’ And we all hurried to that first spot. There she was:

The Queen of Sheba in all her glory! And we’d found her on our very first day! And technically, on our very first stop! (Even if we didn’t quite know it).

We found more during the weekend. My eldest son found one all on his own. Even my hubby (he is a useless spotter), he found one. It was magic.

It made turning 50 turn out okay in the end. And it meant I can now claim to have seen the holy grail of orchids, and live out my own motto in my own book’s dedication: never give up!

xx Lily