The Species Orchid Society of Western Australia (Inc)

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An Afternoon with Ron Heberle
(An Conversation with Tony Watkinson)
(RH) When you see Thelymitra flowering it's often after a fire the previous summer. The fire must do something to the soil, or maybe it regenerates dormant mycorrhizal fungi, I don't know. A lot of people have got theories, but as far as I know the mechanism is not yet known.

This theory business dominates everything to do with nature, and what people try to do is bend nature to suit their theories. You can't do this. You can publish papers and if people swallow it, fair enough, but nature has a habit of making a fool of you.

As a guest speaker at the 1991 AOC conference I covered Thelymitra the full story as I saw it from my experience, plus bits and snips from other people.

Thelymitras are fantastic orchids and they are so aesthetically attractive. People are absolutely staggered when they see them. Not many people know much about these orchids.


(TW) I am still getting some great comments from people who have seen the web site.


(RH) Yes. I'm delighted about that. In regard to future directions, I would like to see as many of my slides put on the web site as can be done. I realize that this is a lot of work for you.


(TW) Well, yes, but it's just a matter of putting your head down and doing it.


(RH) If they want slides, I can supply them, but they cost to get copied, and you have to pay postage and that sort of thing. But my main interest is to see that people get to see them. I don't want to make any profit out of it at all.


When they had the World Orchid Conservation Conference here in Perth in 2001, they approached me about ideas for putting the terrestrials in the exhibition hall. I said yes, I had about 100 prints and I could get some more made to exhibit. There were about 400 of them and they were an absolute sensation. Most of the locals had never seen some of them, never mind the visitors.


(TW) Unless you are wandering about the bush, you wouldn't see them.


(RH) No. And you've really got to know your way around in the bush….. they are not very co-operative……… they are cunning little devils……… they don't make things easy for we humans….. all they are interested in is perpetuating the species.
When it comes to Caladenias, you need to be more selective because there are a lot of Caladenias that are not aesthetically attractive. They are uniquely different, but they are not any where near as colorful as the Thelymitras. Some are very attractive but others are not, so you have to say, well, all right, what am I going to do, just entertain people or am I going to produce something that's got a bit of meat to it. From my point of view, that's my approach. If people just want to look at them, then that's OK, but I want to produce something that makes people think, makes them get off their tails and do something.


(TW) When did you first become interested in orchids?


(RH) Well, my mother was mad about general flora when we were kids in Perth, and the whole area where we lived was bush and covered in wildflowers. You could walk from Claremont up to North Beach and there wasn't a house or anything. At North Beach there was a pub, a couple of stores and two or three houses. There wasn't anything in between at all. And it was a tremendous patch of bush and orchids too. Kids are fascinated by orchids. I mean wildflowers don't bother them much, they are pretty naff, but orchids, they've got something that's entirely different, and kids get fascinated as my sisters and I were. And when we grew up and went to school, if you mentioned that you were interested in all that, they gave you the treatment so we sort of, dropped out of it.
But when Pauline and I got married……. she was a country girl, lived on a farm at Geeralying and there were orchids everywhere. We were living in Katanning and I, along with five other people, started a naturalists club. The bulk of the members were farming people and in those days, every farm had a patch of bush on it. So we used to have a couple of wildflower shows, and natural history shows every year. The farmers would bring in buckets of Donkey Orchids and White Spider Orchids. I volunteered, with Pauline's help with our kids, to be responsible for the orchids. We just picked what we needed for the shows; about three specimens of every one. From that time on we sort of concentrated on orchids.
When we went to live in Albany, we were fortunate that the headmaster of our kid's school was also wrapped in orchids. Albany is a marvelous area for orchids. There are more orchids within 200 km of Albany than anywhere else in the state. We got involved with the wildflower society and we did the same thing there as in Katanning. We took over responsibility for collecting and displaying the orchid section, and as such, we were invited to do something similar in other country towns. So we built up an interest on the basis of learning something about them, not just finding them. That's been very difficult but after 40 years, I've got a few clues.
The problem with orchids, as I've mentioned, is that they are cunning little devils, diabolically cunning. You think you know something about them and then you are confronted with irrevocable evidence that you were wrong. This goes on all the time, so you keep having to change your ideas, but eventually, you come to the inescapable conclusion that you've got to accept that the varieties are infinite. There's neither a beginning nor an end to them. Some professionals like to put them into tidy little boxes called genera and species. They won't stop in those boxes; many jump straight out of them. Once a professional publishes something and has it validated, under the international code, we are all expected to follow it. Well, I do a bit of that, but I query them. I write and publish papers representing different points of view. Well, I'm sometimes not very popular for that. Some don't like amateurs they consider are encroaching on their preserves.
Some taxonomists change the genera and species and are going overboard by splitting up genera, and this has made it very difficult. These revisions, if anything, are supposed to make things clearer, instead of that, they make a highly complex business more complicated. Anyway, that's another story.


(TW) When did you start taking Photographs of orchids?


(RH) In the mid seventies. I was invited to become a collector for the State Herbarium. It was pretty difficult to get specimens to Perth, and I didn't know what they wanted, so I thought that if I photograph them, they could have a look at the slides, and if they want them, I can go and get the specimens for them. Well, I started off with an old second hand Practica SLR with a standard lens and distance rings, and using natural light. Albany's not a particularly good place for natural light, and with that equipment which is very basic; there were endless problems with focusing and depth of field. The depth of field is essential when photographing orchids.
Anyway, after about two and a half years of this, and making a mess of a lot of film, I met Herb Foote who came down from Perth to photograph the wildflowers. He looked at my camera equipment and said "Oh Ron, you'll have to get something better than this. You're never going to do any good with these. You need much superior equipment"
Anyway, in 1981 I bought a Pentax K1000 with a zoom, flash and a "one to one" screw on lens for macro shots. I didn't know how to use the zoom lens and I couldn't find anybody in Albany who could either. Herb Foote showed me how to use the zoom. It has an automatic stop down so that when you focus, you've got the aperture wide open and you can get it exactly as you want it. Then when you select the "f" reading you want, it stops down to that reading automatically. That solved the problem of focusing and the depth of field was solved with the one to one adaptor and the zoom lens, which has a lot of magnification; I could get in real close. And later, I bought a set of diopters so I could take super close ups. Eventually I got to the stage where I could take a decent photo, but I still messed up a bit of film here and there. It's not hard to do.
I also use a flash. The flash meant that I could take photos regardless of the weather, no matter how poor the light was. For super close-ups I had to pick the flower and take it into my studio where I could put the camera on a tripod along with the flash to juggle the two to get what I wanted. I found, by trial and error, that colour is something that governs the aperture setting to get a sharp photo. I found that I had to have the flash 12 inches (30cm) away from the camera, 12 inches away from the screen, (backing board) for light coloured orchids, and 8 to 9 inches (20 to 30cm) for dark coloured orchids, and in between, for all different colours. I had a book in which all these results were written down. Eventually, I memorized it and didn't need the book any more. This meant that I was then taking quality photos. Another thing I did was to have the flash on one side slightly above the lens and angled down so that it hit the middle of the screen. I got a bit of cooking foil and crumpled it up and held that on the opposite side so when the flash bounced, it hit the foil and bounced back so that it lit up all round.


(TW) A deflector?


(RH) Yes. Some people use two flashes but the flash has got to be very low powered. If it's a high-powered flash, it just washes the colour out. Automatic setting only gives you an average shot. But it's not good enough. The flash must be the correct distance from the orchid and you must use manual settings.

(TW) So how many cameras have you had altogether?


(RH) Oh, that's all, only those two. The K1000 was only an update of the old Praktica, but a much better camera.


(TW) So when did you get the K1000?


(RH) I bought it in one of those arcades in Perth, where they sell photographic equipment. That would have been '81 or '82. The K1000 has been superceded by something now that will do everything. I tried borrowing other people's cameras but I made a bigger mess than I did with my own. Every type of equipment gives you a different result so you've got to learn to handle the equipment that you've got. There's always an average you can use, but with orchids, the detail has got to be shown and the average is just not good enough. It's got to be precise.


(TW) Do you prefer to take them indoors or out side in natural light?


(RH) Well, I do both. It depends on the weather. When it's windy, it's a waste of time taking them, they jump around and you can't get them. You can stop some of the movement, as long as it's not too much, with the flash, but if the wind is very bad, you are wasting your time. If it's inclement weather, drizzling and raining and so on, the orchids don't look too good with water droplets all over them. So I've taken about half of my photos in the bush. I take different coloured sheets of card. If the orchid has a bush behind it as background, then that's beautiful, but if the bush is further back, as often as not, the camera will focus on the bush. I used different coloured card; white, gray, pale green, pale blue and black which I carried in the car. I had two bits of wire, bent up like a staple, and I would just bend them round the orchid and put them down just to hold each end attaching the card so that it went out of focus. Another thing that I found, with super close-ups, was that when I photographed the whole orchid, the front part of it was out of focus. By pure accident, I took a photo one day and had focused on the tip of the orchid that was closest to the lens. It looked all blurred in the background, but when I got the slides back, it was in perfect focus.
I took a photography course at TAFE for a while, but their equipment was different to mine, and if I did what they did, with my equipment, it didn't work. These are pitfalls that occur. You really need to study photography if you take on this business, because orchid photography is the most difficult. I'd never owned a camera till I tried to break into macro-photography, and of course, I was naturally behind the eight ball.


(TW) So you had to learn from scratch?


(RH) That's right.


(TW) What sort of film do you use?


(RH) Well, originally it was Kodak 64, but eventually I switched over to Fuji 100's, and the bulk, the best of my photography was done with Fuji 100's. These days people are using 400 film with natural light, and getting beautiful results. I never tried that, I was on a good thing and I stuck to it. Well, I reckoned I was.

(TW) You knew and understood what you were doing and what you were working with.


(RH) That's right. Also, I learned, like everybody else, by my mistakes. The essential thing is to write down everything you do. Write down the distance the flash is away. Write down whether its full size orchid or half size or whatever. When I took my orchids inside, I used f22, which gave beautiful depth of field. But if I tried to use F22 out in the bush, they were all underexposed because the opening was too small so I used F16 with the flash and got very good results. But I had to write all this down.


(TW) So you used the flash outside too.


(RH) Yes. All I did with the flash outside. You can have the flash attached to the camera but its pretty cumbersome to cart them around. A lot of people have one flash angled up from below the lens, and one angled down from the other side of the lens, and they get excellent results, but all I do, using the zoom lens and the adaptor, is hold the flash alongside the lens. There's a tolerance of a half inch (12mm) in the flash distance and anywhere in that half inch, you get fairly good results, but if its over half an inch, well, it shows, either over exposed or under exposed.
We concentrated on 200kms from Albany, and we've possibly looked at 1% of what's there.


(TW) You've got some orchids named after you. What are they?


(RH) Yes, ones a Donkey (Diuris heberlei) orchid and the other's a Spider (Caladenia heberleana) orchid. The Donkey orchids are something that we should be put on the net. They are beautiful.


(TW) You have slides of them too do you?


(RH) I have all the named WA species and a few that haven't been named. For some obscure reason, they don't appear to hybridize over here. I've only seen one Donkey orchid that, I think, is a hybrid. In the Eastern States they hybridize like mad. It's all a question of pollinators. The Donkey orchid has probably got a specific pollinator and there aren't many of them around. Whereas Caladenias, most of them have non-specific pollinators, any sort of insect will do. It's a possibility and it could be a probability, but you're going to be hard pressed to bring it up to a probability.
I've got a lot of correspondence from a chap who lives in the U.S.A. He had a theory that some orchids have a specific pollinator, and if that pollinator is not present, it never got fertilized. He published a series of very plausible papers built around this theory, but the more I got into hybrids, the more I was quite certain that he was going up the garden path. So he came over, he had four trips to Australia, and he came down to Albany. I invited him to stay with us, and every night I'd take him into the lounge room where we had the projectors set up, and I'd show him all these hybrids. I said that they couldn't have a specific pollinator because of all these hybrids. He said 'Ron, I'm convinced that what I wrote was wrong in some cases. No one challenged me'. He was one of the first in that field of study you see.
When anyone publishes anything, it's up to be debated. You get a personal point of view, and a single personal point of view isn't worth that much. If a personal point of view is backed up by a great many others contributing, well then, maybe you are on the right track.
I published my first paper on Caladenia hybrids about 1991 in the Orchadian. A chap had written to me suggesting that I should publish a paper about Caladania hybrids. I agreed and roughed out some notes (I'd never written one before) and I sent it to a friend of mine who was a big noise in the orchid world in Sydney, for his advice. He wrote back and he suggested certain amendments and so on, and he said,"Look, if you are going to publish in the Orchadian, you should get in touch with the Orchadian editor and get his assistance". This was a chap named Joe Betts. We swapped letters back and forth, and eventually the paper was drafted as a professional paper, though even with his assistance it was written by an amateur. He published it, and, I didn't know it, but at that time it was the first paper that had ever been written about Caladenia hybrids in Australia. So it was a benchmark. I made some predictions. Only one of them has survived because they were wrong. For instance, I said that apart from the early flowering and late flowering Caladenias, all the rest are free to hybridize. Well I've never seen an early flowering hybrid but we found late flowering hybrids, so maybe I was half right.
I got interested in hybrids and as far as I know, few others have. In the first paper, I suggested that other people should do the same work in other locations and then the full story might be known some day, but as far as I know that hasn't happened.


(TW) I guess most people would want a fair bit of money to do the sort of work that you have done, but you have done it as a hobby.


(RH) Yes. We spent a lot of money. Neither of us drink nor smoke and we haven't got any expensive habits, so we always had a few bob to fill up the car and go somewhere. We were very lucky in that we had friends and relations spread all through the country and could nick up on a Friday night, stay the night with them and go out looking at orchids the next day. They knew the bush and where the orchids were. Then we could set off back to Albany by another route and get back about 6 o'clock Sunday. In that way we could really cover the countryside. We would never have been able to do it without them.


(TW) You told me once that you tried to grow some Thelymitras and you hadn't been 100% successful.


(RH) No. The Thelymitras were easier to grow than Caladenias in general, but some of them were impossible. The easy ones are a lot of those blue ones. But they survive in the pot from three to five years because they use up the mycorrhizal fungi and it isn't replaced so they die.


(TW) I see. So if you could find some way of replacing the fungi……


(RH) Yes. That's what they are doing today. That's what Heinrich Beyrle does.
The most beautiful Thelymitra vareigata I've ever seen, used to grow on Mt. Wylieyung, which is behind the airport at Albany. It was a big granite rock. The farmer sold the rock to Australian Blue Metal and they started blasting it out for road making. They dumped the metal dust on top of the Thelymitras. You are lucky to find one or two there now. It's a great heap of metal dust now. About 200 square metres. It was the only place I've ever seen these. They were the most beautiful colour forms we had ever seen.
There are some T. vareigatas growing north of Perth that I have never seen, and they are beautiful. They used to grow all around the Swan River when I was a kid. They grew from Belmont, down through Burswood, Victoria Park, South Perth, Mt. Pleasant, down through Jandacot to Woodman's point, Twelve Mile Well and right around where Kwinana is now, down to Rockingham, Point Peron, and then all the way down to Bunbury. Of course, many of them are gone.


(TW) Thanks for talking with me today Ron. I'm sure many people will be interested in your comments.