Cooktown Orchid or Dendrobium Phalaenopsis

Floral Emblem of Queensland

When Queensland prepared for its Centenary in 1959, it sought advice on native species suitable as a floral emblem. The species suggested were Cooktown Orchid (then thought to be Dendrobium bigibbum), Red Silky Oak (Grevillea banksii), Umbrella Tree (Brassaia (now Schefflera) actinophylla), and Wheel of Fire (Stenocarpus sinuatus). A Brisbane newspaper, the Courier-Mail, sought additional suggestions from its readers and finally compiled a list of thirteen species. In a public poll for the most popular choice as floral emblem, 10,917 entries were submitted and according to the organiser 'the Cooktown Orchid, Queensland's own world-famous hybrid [sic] orchid came out thousands ahead in the count of votes'. Grevillea banksii was second, and third was Euphorbia pulcherrima, Poinsettia, a Mexican species already used as the floral emblem of the capital city, Brisbane.

On 19 November 1959 the Cooktown Orchid, under the botanical name of Dendrobium bigibbum var phalaenopsis, was proclaimed as the floral emblem of Queensland (Act). It conformed with the Government's criteria in being an easily cultivated native species confined to Queensland, decorative and distinctive in appearance, and coloured close to the State colour, maroon.

The correct botanical name for the Cooktown Orchid has, however, been the subject of continuing speculation and debate.

Plants of Dendrobium bigibbum were first collected by a Dr Thomson on Mount Adolphus, a small island about 18 km north-east of Cape York. These plants were sent to a nursery in London, and in 1852 the species was described and named by the British botanist, John Lindley (1799-1865). It does not occur near Cooktown.

Dendrobium phalaenopsis was described by Robert FitzGerald, Surveyor General of New South Wales in 1880. In his description he included the words "It was obtained near Cooktown, Queensland". In December of the same year he published a beautiful colour plate of Dendrobium phalaenopsis in 'Australian Orchids' with the words "obtained in northern Queensland", which clearly illustrates the plant people now know as the Cooktown Orchid.

The generic name Dendrobium is derived from the Greek 'dendron', meaning 'tree', and 'bios', meaning 'life'; plants of many species of this genus perch on tree trunks and branches. The specific name phalaenopsis from the Greek 'phalaina', meaning 'moth', due to the flower's resemblance to a moth. Dendrobium is a very large genus of more than 1400 species in south and east Asia and in the south-west Pacific. Dendrobium belongs to the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants. This family is distributed widely throughout the world, with the greatest number in tropical areas

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