Discovering Jack Wilkie’s orchid specimen at Cairns Museum

Earlier this week, I was contacted by Don Lawie, one of the volunteers at Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settlers Museum. His email contained a link to a newsletter he had recently prepared for the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Don drew my attention to the piece called “Beautiful Plants of the Tropics”, one that he had written following his visit to Cairns Museum for the opening of the latest temporary exhibition. 

I first met Don in my capacity as MDO for FNQ and have always been aware of his knowledge and love of local history and the region, despite his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. But I didn’t know about Don’s interest in Australian plants, and his article’s closing sentence stopped me in my tracks:

“I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.”

Don Lawie, 2019

Here in a single sentence, Don captures the value of museums: the joy that a single artefact can bring to a visitor, the wonder of ‘the real thing’, the importance of preserving collections, the significance of local collections and the value of sharing knowledge across the community. As a museum worker, this shows me the different ways people access and read the items on display, and it validates my interest in interpreting our environment as part of a region’s social history, and the importance of national history collections and herbariums.

The display corner in Cairns Museum that caught Don’s eye.

Don’s email inspired me to go back into the museum and seek out the display, and to see what it is that captured his imagination. I also got online to find out more about the specimen, dendrobium fleckeri and found that its common name is the apricot cane orchid. I hope to work with Don and use his memories of Babinda’s orchidologist, and former Babinda Mill worker, Jack Wilkie as part of a larger story as we develop Babinda’s new museum. For now, however, I’m just going to share Don’s article (with permission), and the delight of his discovery.

Beautiful plants of the tropics: Dendrobium fleckeri
Don Lawie, 2019

The refurbished Cairns Museum is filled with treasures that recall the past of our part of the world. On a recent visit I was excited to find a treasure that made my heart beat faster and my tremors go into overdrive. There, on the first floor, in an unremarkable corner, was a dried and mounted specimen of a Dendrobium orchid. I found this fascinating since the expertly mounted specimen comprised the entire plant – leaves, rooted stem and inflorescences. I have long understood that such a mounted specimen is impractical due to the general features of a Dendrobium orchid. This specimen was collected on Mount Bartle Frere in 1947 and is still in good condition – good enough for an I.D.

Why does this specimen excite me? The collector was Babinda’s Jack Wilkie. Jack was an indefatigable explorer of the mountains and rivers in the vicinity of Babinda; he found and named a number of orchid species previously unknown to Australia , and several were named in his honour (unfortunately, they had been previously described overseas and so the original name had to supercede the wilkiei name).

I knew Mr Wilkie when I was a boy and he was a loco driver for Babinda Mill. He used to give my brother and me a ride in the steam loco cab when he went down the spur line to our farm at Fig Tree Creek, letting us toss coal into the roaring maw of the fire box. Many years later Pauline and I had the honour of being present when Orchidologist Bill Lavarack presented the Australian Orchid Foundation’s Award of Honour to Jack Wilkie in acknowledgement of his immense contribution to the orchid world. And not many years later I was proud to be able to scatter some home-grown orchid flowers on his grave.

Dendrobium fleckeri occurs mostly on the higher mountains such as Bartle Frere, Bellenden Ker and Mount Lewis at altitudes above 900 metres. It prefers to grow on exposed rocks and can flower at any time of the year. The plant is small – the stems about 30 centimetres long – and the flowers are also small. Common name is Apricot Orchid and it is not found in cultivation since it will only grow in the weather conditions of our highest mountains. So, I will never see D. fleckeri alive, but thanks to Cairns Museum I have seen a lasting specimen collected and mounted by one of my heroes.


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Posted on 19 March 2019, in Jo's Diary, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Historical Society

    As an orchid lover, I really love this story. Thank you for sharing.

    Cheers Marge Scully Cooktown History Centre, for everything about Cooktown’s history. 121 Charlotte Street, PO Box 595, Cooktown 4895 Ph 07 4069 6640 Opening hours vary throughout the years. Please check with our web page. http://www.cooktownhistory.org.au

    On Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 10:45 AM Queensland Museum & community collections wrote:

    > Dr Jo Wills posted: ” Earlier this week, I was contacted by Don Lawie, one > of the volunteers at Gordonvale’s Mulgrave Settlers Museum. His email > contained a link to a newsletter he had recently prepared for the Society > for Growing Australian Plants. Don drew my attention to t” >

  2. Melinda Forsythe

    What a wonderful article. I hope it is Ok to print a copy and send it to my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who have been Cairns residents for nearly 50 years. Gillian Forsythe was a leading member of the Cairns bushwalking club, while her husband Stewart was an avid amatuer Orchidologist. Due to ill-health they can no longer venture up into the mountains but next time we’re up in the Far North I’ll be sure to take them to the museum. Thank you for sharing.

    • Of course it is, Melinda. I know Don would be thrilled to hear of the interest as well. We would love to hear more about the bushwalking history around the area from your parents. Best wishes,
      Jo.

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