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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 19(4) March - May 2011, p 19-21

Jidaanga cultural project, New South Wales—the endangered orchid Phaius australis
Amie McElroy

Booroongen Djugun College, Kempsey, NSW. Email: acso@booroongencollege.nsw.edu.au


The local Guri community, Booroongen Djugun College, the NSW Department of Environment Climate Change and Water (the Department) and the Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority (the Authority) have banded together to save an endangered orchid from extinction.

Through the encouragement of a distinguished Elder of the Dunghutti–Gumbaynggir nations, the late Aunty Maggie Morris, the Natural Resources Unit of Booroongen Djugun College located a small colony (17 plants) of Phaius australis, also known as the Swamp Orchid or Swamp Lily, in the Kempsey area on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The Department believe this newly located colony to be the southern limit of the Swamp Orchid, the next nearest colony being near Coffs Harbour approximately 100 km to the north.

Much of the information regarding the Swamp Orchid in its natural setting is local knowledge held by Aboriginal people in the community. There is limited written or published research but a wealth of verbal Traditional knowledge held by the Aboriginal communities.

The late Aunty Maggie Morris, a distinguished Elder of the Dunghutti–Gumbaynggir nations, whose encouragement lead to the Jidaanga cultural project

The late Aunty Maggie Morris, a distinguished Elder of the Dunghutti–Gumbaynggir nations, whose encouragement lead to the Jidaanga cultural project.
Photo: courtesy of Garry Morris

Phaius australis, the Swamp Orchid or Swamp Lily, in flower. Photo: Ray Clements

Phaius australis, the Swamp Orchid or Swamp Lily, in flower. Photo: Ray Clements

Phaius australis recovery project

Booroongen Djugun College formed an Aboriginal Natural Resource Agreement with the Department’s Northern Country Culture and Heritage Division, Scientific Branch and Biodiversity Assessment and Conservation Section. With a Northern Country Culture and Heritage Division grant of $25 000, the College established the Phaius australis recovery project.

As part of the program two plants were removed under a Departmental licence to be kept at separate locations as an insurance measure in case of the loss of the natural plants. Gary Morris, the Chief Executive Officer of Booroongen Djugun College, said that custodianship of these plants helps ensure there is genetic backup for the in situ population of 17 plants which are at risk for a variety of reasons.

The ex situ plants have been successfully nurtured and one plant flowered in the spring of 2010. The other plant was pollinated, and the seed collected and delivered to two laboratories for safe keeping.

A weed management team selected by the local Aboriginal community have worked at the site after receiving accredited training in Conservation and Land Management through Booroongen Djugun College. The existing Swamp Orchid population has been cleared of feral weeds which were overgrowing and shading out plants. The remaining Swamp Orchids are more vigorous and healthy and in three flowering seasons have gone from one flowering spike for the colony to five spikes, of which two set and dispersed seed.

Cultural Heritage officers from the Department’s Northern Country Culture and Heritage Division trained the team in cultural site surveying methodology. Hilton Naden, the Division’s Manager, said that by reconnecting the cultural renewal aspects, it will be possible to explore the shared coexistence between the Phaius and cultural values within the local area and the traditional uses of the Swamp Orchid. The project methodology is innovative in that it consistently involves the ecological expertise and advice of the Traditional Owners, Aboriginal Elders and knowledge holders.

Ongoing management

Booroongen Djugun College was successful in obtaining a NSW Government Environmental Trust ‘Restoration and Rehabilitation’ community grant of close to $100 000 to develop and implement a Translocation and Management Plan.

The Phaius australis Recovery—Increasing Native Habitat project was recently renamed ‘Jidaanga Cultural Project—Endangered Phaius australis’. Jidaanga is a Gumbaynggir word meaning waterhole. The new name was in honour of Aunty Maggie, a recipient of an award from Andrew Refshauge MP, Deputy Premier, in 2002 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to heritage and conservation in New South Wales.

The Jidaanga Cultural Project aims to:

  • obtain 1500 plants from culture and seed growing to a • size where there is a reasonable chance of survival and reintroduction to a suitable habitat
  • develop and implement a Translocation and • Management Plan to identify suitable habitat where there is a likelihood of successful reintroduction
  • integrate the Traditional ecological knowledge of the Dunghutti and Gumbaynggir peoples with the orthodox scientific skills of the Department in training Aboriginal participants to create a geographic information system
  • provide further training opportunities for Aboriginal ommunities in conservation and land management, incorporating the management actions for on-ground works on ‘country’.


The future of the Swamp Orchid is precarious, and it is listed as an endangered species under both Commonwealth and State legislation. There are currently about 14 known populations in New South Wales, most of which have very few plants. The cause of this decline was originally from land clearing by way of logging, feral pigs, pasture creation, sand mining and now, in its rarity, illegal collection. We seem to be powerless to stop land clearing.

Broad-leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia) swamps near the coast usually (but not exclusively) seem to be the main habitat for the Swamp Orchid. For the orchid’s future survival in the wild it is therefore essential that these paperbark swamps are also preserved and not degraded.

Through the collaborative efforts of our partners and the Dunghutti and Gumbaynggir Elders, this work intends to acknowledge the Aboriginal contribution and importance of saving a very important part of our cultural heritage.