Flying Duck Orchid Care – Can You Grow Flying Duck Orchid Plants

Flying Duck Orchid Care – Can You Grow Flying Duck Orchid Plants

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Native to the Australian wilderness, flying duck orchid plants (Caleana major) are amazing orchids that produce – you guessed it – distinctive duck-like blooms. The red, purple and green blooms, which appear in late spring and early summer, are tiny, measuring only ½ to ¾ inches (1 to 1.9 cm.) in length. Here are a few more interesting facts about flying duck orchids.

Facts about Flying Duck Orchids

The complex flowers have evolved to attract male sawflies, which are tricked into thinking the plants are female sawflies. The insects are actually trapped by the “beak” of the plant, forcing the unsuspecting sawfly to pass through the pollen as it exits from the trap. Although the sawfly may not intend to be a pollinator for flying duck orchid plants, it plays a critical role in the survival of this orchid.

Flying duck orchid plants are so unique that the plants were featured on Australian postage stamps, along with other beautiful orchids endemic to that country. Unfortunately, the plant is on also Australia’s vulnerable plant list, due primarily to habitat destruction and a decrease in numbers of critical pollinators.

Can You Grow Flying Duck Orchid?

Although any orchid lover would love to learn how to grow flying duck orchids, the plants aren’t available on the market, and the only way to see flying duck orchid plants is to travel to Australia. Why? Because the roots of flying duck orchid plants have a symbiotic relationship with a type of fungus found only in the plant’s natural habitat – primarily in eucalyptus woodlands of southern and eastern Australia.

Many plant lovers are curious about flying duck orchid care, but as of yet, propagating and growing flying duck orchids out of certain parts of Australia isn’t possible. Although countless people have tried, flying duck orchid plants have never survived long without the presence of the fungus. It is believed that the fungus actually keeps the plant healthy and fights off infections.

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Facts About Flying Duck Orchids: Information On Growing Flying Duck Orchids - garden

The Caleana is more often known as the Duck Orchid – and for fairly obvious reasons. It looks like a duck in flight, its wings swept back, head and beak held high and proud. This attractive yet amusing addition to the orchid genus is a native of Australia, famed perhaps more for its marsupials than its mallards (platypodes aside). Yet as a result of the shape of its labellum (or lip) its anatine association will be that by which it is always remembered.

The two other petals of caleana look more like sepals and stretch back, almost like the wings of a duck in flight. This makes the labellum appear larger to insects than it actually is and increases its chances of attracting a sawfly to its pollen. It has another trick up its metaphorical sleeve, too.

If a sawfly lands on the column of the flower its weight forces the labellum to spring down on to it. The insect is trapped and the only way it can get out is a route which takes it via the pollen. Once the sawfly makes its exit (no doubt somewhat confused and bewildered) the labellum is gradually restored to its original position, awaiting the next sawfly to come along.

The duck orchid is a perennial but blooms in late spring or early summer. At up to 45 centimeters in height you might think it would stand out in its natural habitat. However, because of the reddy-brown colors of both the stem and flowers it moulds in to its Australian environs so expertly that it becomes almost invisible – unless you are deliberately seeking out its company.

If you have suddenly been gripped by the desire to own your very own duck orchid then you will be disappointed. Despite numerous attempts, this orchid stubbornly refuses to be propagated, and is only found in the wild. This is because the roots of caleana have a symbiotic relationship with the vegetative part of a fungus which only thrives in the part of Australia in which it originates. The fungus helps the plant to stave off infections and without its help the duck orchid never lasts long.

Fortunately for the duck orchid, it is found in hundreds of locations in the south west of Australia. If, however, you want to see this remarkable orchid for yourself, you will have to visit its country of origin and call on it at home. There are, after all, many worse ways to spend your vacation. You might even see the other example of Australia's amazing anatine attractions too - the duck billed platypus.

9 Fascinating Things You Didn't Know About Orchids

You have to see the variety that looks just like a monkey.

There's far more to these exotic blooms than meets the eye.

This bottle of vanilla extract that you pour into your favorite cookie and cake recipes comes from the orchid Vanilla planifolia. It's the only orchid that produces an edible fruit (yep, vanilla is fruit!).

With the exception of black, orchids sport basically every color of the rainbow. Although rare, there are even blue orchids, and the flowers bloom in dual color combos, too.

Orchids know just how to get insects to pollenate. Certain types, like this (really adorable) bee orchid, closely resemble insects, which tricks the bugs into coming close. To be blunt, the insect might try to mate with the flower, and will take the pollen when it finally wises up and flies away.

Next time you walk in the forest or beside a swamp, look for a native orchid. Spring and summer is the time to find them on dry clay banks. They have unusual flower shapes and grow everywhere in New Zealand, but are not always easy to find.

What are orchids?

Orchids are long-lived flowering plants with unusual flower shapes. Many die down to an underground stem after flowering each year.

New Zealand orchids

New Zealand has over 120 species of wild native orchids. Eight species are epiphytes. These are plants that perch on trees or rocks. The bamboo orchid grows in the fork of a tree, and has starry white flowers in summer.


In tropical countries the flowers are big and showy. In New Zealand they are mostly small and not brightly coloured. They are often named for their odd shapes, such as the spider orchid, helmet orchid and duck orchid.

The middle petal of an orchid bloom often forms a landing platform to attract insects. There is often a hood to protect the flower’s reproductive parts.

Where do they grow?

Orchids grow all around the country, often in poor soil. In the forest, epiphytic orchids grow on trees or rocks. Others grow among leaves on the forest floor. In open scrubland, sun orchids and many others flower in spring and summer.

Orchids also thrive in swamps and beside streams. One, called ladies’ tresses, has long pink flowers and may grow in wet sand dunes.


Many New Zealand orchids are rare, and some are endangered. The rarest is the black helmet orchid. This grows only in one swamp in the Waikato.

Trickery, mimicry and deceit of orchids in the wild

Most gardeners will be familiar with the exotic Cymbidium and Phalanopsis orchids or maybe the native Dendrobium. However, the orchids which fascinate me are the tiny terrestrial orchids which can be found growing in the wild in the eastern and southern states of Australia. When I look at them closely through the macro lens of my camera, I really start to see the amazing details in their flowers.

Corybas fimbriatus orchids compared to a 10 cent coin

Orchids belong to the largest plant group on earth with over 30,000 identified species. Of these, over 1700 species are found in Australia and the majority of these are found nowhere else in the world.

Approximately 80% of our native orchids are terrestrial (that is they grow in the ground) and they vary in size from the tiny Helmet Orchids (Corybas species) which are only 1-2 cm in height, to the Tall Leek Orchid which can reach to a metre.

A colony of terrestrial orchids (Caladenia flava ssp. maculata) flowering north of Perth, WA

The remaining 20% are either epiphytes (which grow on the trunks and branches of trees and some even tangle themselves in the outer twigs) or lithophytes (which grow on rocks and cliff faces).


I find that the study of orchids and particularly their methods to achieve pollination to be fascinating. It even leads to a world of trickery, mimicry and deceit.

One of the petals of an orchid flower has been modified and is known as the ‘lip’ or ‘labellum’. This serves as the attractor or landing pad for the insects that visit the flower. Some orchid flowers can be quite bizarre in shape and they are often adorned with colourful hairs, bands or teeth to attract their insect pollinator.

Calochilus campestris (Copper Beard Orchid) showing the labellum with the ‘landing pad’ of colourful hairs

Eriochilus petricola (Parsons Bands) has decorated its labellum with woolly hairs

Orchids achieve pollination in a variety of ways including mimicking the appearance and scent of the female insect by enticing the male pollinators with a promise of sweet nectar, but then failing to provide it.

One orchid, which emits a sweet smelling scent, is Lyperanthus suaveolens. Its pollinator is deceived into seeking nectar from the base of the labellum, but goes away unrewarded. However, he does collect pollen in the process which he later deposits on the next flower, so achieving pollination for the orchid.

Lyperanthus suaveolens (Brown Beak Orchid) is sweet-smelling but gives no nectar reward

In the same way, Corybas orchids which have the appearance of small fungi, have a foul smell which attracts fungus gnats and small flies which are their pollinators.

The fungi-like Corybas aconitiflorus (Spurred Helmet Orchid) is only 1 or 2 cm tall and is pollinated by fungus gnats attracted by the foul smell

Chiloglottis orchids use trickery to achieve pollination. Each species of Chiloglottis orchid has its own specific wasp pollinator. The orchid produces a special floral scent known as a pheromone which mimics that of the female wasp. As well, an arrangement of glands and calli on the labellum (lip) of the flower bears a remarkable resemblance to the female wasp. As a consequence, the male sees and smells what he thinks is a female and flies down to mate with her. In the confusion, he picks up pollen which he then deposits on the next flower and so pollination occurs.

Chiloglottis formicifera (Common Ant Orchid) showing the insect-like arrangement of glands and calli on the labellum. The browns and greens of the dull-coloured flowers make them difficult to spot

The Large Tongue Orchid (Cryptostylis subulata) also uses trickery to achieve pollination. This orchid has a very prominent labellum that is designed to fool a visiting wasp into thinking he is mating with the female of his species. Known as pseudo-copulation, this results in pollen being transferred between pollinator and flower.

Cryptostylis subulata (Large Tongue Orchid) showing the prominent labellum

Cryptostylis hunteriana (Leafless Tongue Orchid) has a very prominent hairy labellum

The Flying Duck Orchid ( Calena major ) is one of the orchids which traps its insect pollinator to achieve pollination. In this case, the head of the duck is the labellum. When an insect lands on the ‘head’, a trigger is released resulting in the insect being trapped in the ‘wings’ of the flower. To escape, the insect must brush past the pollen presenter. In so doing he picks up pollen as he escapes from the flower.

Caleana major (Large Flying Duck Orchid) showing the remarkable resemblance to a duck in flight

Greenhood orchids also trap their pollinators. The labellum is on a touch sensitive trigger and as an insect descends into the flower, the trigger is released and it suddenly finds itself flung into the body of the flower. As it tries to escape, it picks up a dab of pollen which is later transferred to another greenhood flower.

Pterostylis nutans (Nodding Greenhood) with its translucent nodding flower

Pterostylis grandiflora has the well-chosen common name of ‘Cobra Greenhood’

Some orchids such as The Horned Orchid (Orthoceras strictum) and Austral Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes australis) are self-pollinating. Their pollen is crumbly and falls readily within the column.

Orthoceras strictum (Horned Orchid) is a self-pollinating orchid

Spiranthes australis (Austral Ladies Tresses) with its flowers arranged in a dense spiral spike

Other orchids mimic native flowers to attract their pollinator. Examples of these are the blue Sun Orchids (Thelymitra species) that are pollinated by the same insects that pollinate the blue native irises (Patersonia) and lilies (Dianella). The yellow Donkey Orchids (Diuris) and yellow peaflowers are pollinated by the same insects (native bees).

Thelymitra ixioides (Spotted Sun Orchid) mimics native irises and lilies to achieve pollination

Diuris aurea (Golden Donkey Orchid) mimics the yellow peaflowers

Another orchid which mimics another plant is The Tall Leek Orchid (Prasophyllum elatum). It copies the Xanthorrhoea (Grass Tree) in several ways. They are both pollinated by the same insects, they both flower well the season following a bushfire and from a distance the flowers of the orchid could be mistaken for the flowers of the Grass Trees.

Prasophyllum elatum (Tall Leek Orchid) flowering beside Xanthorrhoea

Prasophyllum elatum (Tall Leek Orchid), the flowers of which from a distance resemble those of the grass trees (Xanthorrhoea)


As much as it would be a delight to have these fascinating plants growing in the garden, I leave that to the experts! Many native orchid growers do have success growing some of the terrestrial species in pots. However, while a few may be easy to grow, others are very difficult or impossible in cultivation.

Normally native orchids in the wild need a relationship with a specific underground fungus to survive and that cannot be readily provided in a garden environment.

We also need to remember that all Australian native orchids are protected plants and cannot be picked or collected in the wild. So instead, we enjoy them through the lens of the camera!


Margaret Bradhurst has had a life-long interest in native orchids. Growing up in Hobart she brought that love of orchids to southern Sydney where for the last 25 years, she has been recording and photographing native orchids. She has been a member of the Sutherland Group of the Australian Plant Society NSW for many years.

Subterranean Plant (Hydnora Africana)

No, you are not seeing things, that a plant is not a monster! This South African suburban plant is actually one of the most bizarre plants on earth. Despite its crazy form, it is actually semi-common in the dry areas of South Africa.

Hydrona Africana also called jackal food by the locals, has no visible leaves, roots, or chlorophyll. It is strictly parasitic, underground plant, whose flower takes about a year to get out of the ground.

Despite its monstrous form and disgusting smell, Hydrona Africana produces delicious berries that are delicious just when it is ripe on an open fire. The fruit also has astringent properties and is used as a remedy for fish protection, tanning, and acne treatment in a face wash.

Okay, No more monkeying around. How about a garden full of Money Face Orchids?


Draula simia also called monkey orchid or the monkey-like Dracula, is an epiphytic orchid originally described in the genus Masdevallia, but later moved to the genus Dracula. The arrangement of column, petals and lip strongly resembles a monkey's face. As you can see by the photos there is a wide verity of the Monkey orhid.

Growing Info: The seeds need light to germinate, so don't cover them with soil. When you bring the seed trays out of the refrigerator, place them in a location with temperatures between 70 and 75 F. (21-24 C.) and provide plenty of bright light. Remove the seed trays from the bag as soon as the seeds germinate.A

Where to buy:

I did find the Monkey Face Orchid seeds for sale on Amazon but could not find the bulbs. If you have the time and patience you could have these little guys smiling up at you in your garden.

Watch the video: Kids for Orchids: Duck Orchid Special