The Orchid Show – Circa 1970

Umina was a small town slung to the side of a long sandy beach where we would go to visit our two great-aunts, who lived in two different houses.

I remember that late morning it was summer and hot and sticky. The sky was pale blue with a white haze and the streets burned in the blazing sun. My empire-line, short sleeve dress of floral nylon did not help matters much either, causing me to sweat uncomfortably. But Aunty Mary and Aunty Olive took us three young girls off in our best dresses to see the Annual Orchid Show, which was being held in the Umina Town Hall.

The large interior of the Town Hall, with its mellow, polished wooden floors was not much cooler. Each exhibit of orchids were displayed in separate tents so that they could be viewed to best advantage without having to vie for attention with other orchid displays. The owner’s names and sometimes a prize were displayed proudly on each bench the orchids rested on. Despite the slowly whirring ceiling fans it was almost intolerably stuffy, the only thing to drink were cups of hot tea served with biscuits and warm, brackish water from the creaky tap in the kitchen/server at the side.

So I had to take my mind off the suffocating, enervating heat by focusing on what was beautiful. Each orchid display beckoned me into its world and impressed itself deeply into my mind with their almost fleshy contours, their flute like columns with their gaping, often blood-tinged lips springing from a bed of petals and heady but subtle and delicate scents that stole around me and wove a hypnotic spell.

Most of the orchids were what Mum referred to as Cymbidiums with sprays of large, insolent flowers with wide petals and dragon lips to smaller more delicate ones, their long, dark green, spear-like leaves offsetting their beauty. There was a fantastic array of colours. The most striking thing about the orchids was their individuality. No exhibit was the same as another.

There was a spray of pure alabaster white orchids in fresh, glowing health that had won first prize. There were deep pink orchids with striations of deep, magenta red and a magnificent array of ochre yellow orchids.

Some of the orchids were green with their columns and lip speckled with a smattering of red freckles. Another was a handsome chocolate brown and green stripes with lips of red tinged cream.

Then there on a rock crouched an exhilarating cluster of white rock lilies with their slim, scimitar curled petals, emanating their distinctive honey sweet, heavy scent.

There were a flock of tiny native duck orchids with eggplant coloured petals that looked exactly like ducks flying. So odd, that there ever could be flowers like that.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but I had lingered and gazed at each exhibit utterly enthralled.  No other flowering plant has such individuality, magnetic allure and air of mystery as the orchid.  Though some are more extroverted and insolent than others, there are the shy members of the orchid family as well.

In the temperate rainforests of NSW, the small Greenhood orchids flower.  They are hard to sight, being camouflaged by the profusion of ferns and mosses they cohabit with and can usually be found by the side of a muddy track.  Then suddenly you notice whole patches of them in the dappled sunlight under the trees – sentient, translucent little helmets tinged brownish-green each nodding on the top of a slender, six inch stem.

My mother, a keen naturalist, has a special affinity with the Greenhood orchids and has written a poem about them:


Spurred on the moment
Riding into the silence of the spell

-Carlotta Payne


Mother and Child

mother and baby dead
by some cruel and anonymous bomber
Somewhere they still exist
Smiling and happy
In green fields with flowers
But in another time now
Leaving woe and
That sundering silence
Untimely death
That I did not know as a mother
The child I named
would sail to her completion
so far
But what right have I
to expect the name to last?
Those names
Are faceless in eternity
The granite curtain of
whatever happens
may come crashing down
Exactly when
We never know…

– Megan Payne