Learn more about biodiversity hotspots, orchid evolution and ancient landscapes with two wildflower experts, including Cape to Cape Explorer Tours guide Trevor Paddenburg. Read on for the full story by Lizzy Pepper. 

I’ve spent the winter months searching the ground for signs of orchids – snails, jugs, spiders. So, with the kaleidoscopic colours of spring underway, I called Hank “Orchid Hunter” Durlik and Trevor Paddenberg to chat all things wildflowers.

Hank shares his beloved orchids with guests of Margaret River Exposed Tours, and he taught me the art of spotting their slender, fuzzy stems and narrow leaves first, before allowing your eye to travel up to the flower.

Trevor (pictured, below) wears two hats; guiding for Cape to Cape Explorer Tours along the awe-inspiring coastal trail and working with Nature Conservation Margaret River Region. Right now, he’s organising an Open Gardens Nature Weekend event for October.

Trevor Paddenberg, Nature Conservation Margaret River Region

Trevor, we’re coming into peak hiking season. What’s blooming on the Cape to Cape right now?

“It’s been an amazing start to the wildflower season as we’ve had a warm winter and just enough rainfall, it’s shaping up to be a beauty!

We’re already seeing a whole bunch of pea flowers, spider and donkey orchids, plus the beautiful yellow pom poms of the native wattles. That’s the cool thing about our region – you get this spread or diversity from the north to south. While there’s shell, snail and jug orchids on the southern parts of the track, you’ll see donkey orchids further north, sometimes 20 to 30 flowers in a patch. Spider orchids are my favourite – they’re so detailed and you see a whole world within a flower – it’s quite mesmerising.

We see these rough transitions as the season progresses, from yellows and creams dominating to more purples and pinks like pimelia.”

Awesome – so the wildflowers change as you walk the 125km?

“Geology is a huge factor – limestone and granite soils have their own species. You always see more diversity in the granite regions.

Day one on the Cape to Cape, from Cape Naturaliste to Yallingup is limestone terrain. It’s relatively new – from 1 million to just 10,000 years old. The plants have only been evolving on the limestone for a relatively short period of time. You still see incredible diversity but not as much as day two when we move onto granite or laterite soil. That’s your real hotspot for orchids as well.

This granite was created when the continents collided 600 million years ago, what is now India and Western Australian plates, and so plants have been evolving on that soil for such a long, long time.”

Tell us something fascinating about orchids…

“Orchids blow my mind as they’re masters of deception in the plant world. They trick the pollinators by mimicking other plants’ scent, colour or visual pattern. For example, the donkey orchid is a mix of yellow, brown and purple – exactly like many of the native pea flowers blossoming right now! The pollinator lands on the donkey orchid thinking there’ll be tasty reward of nectar there, gets covered in the donkey orchid pollen, then flies to another orchid and pollinates it. It doesn’t have to produce any nectar – saving all this energy – purely using trickery to achieve pollination and spread their genes and continue the circle of life.

The spider orchids mimic the scent of a female thynnid wasp. It’s incredible, but that’s what happens in millions of years of evolution.”

You’ll find plenty of wildflowers along the Cape to Cape Track. Photo: Tim Campbell

What is a biodiversity hotspot?

“It’s massive double-edged sword, being a biodiversity hotspot. To qualify you need to have 1,500 species completely unique to this region, and from Perth to Esperance we have more than 3,500 endemic species. You also need to have lost three quarters of the habitat. Our biodiversity is unique and special, but it’s also under threat.

The good news is while the Margaret River Region has experienced a lot of land clearing, the Cape to Cape and Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park is a Noah’s Ark for a lot of those species. It’s protected, and we have a big percentage of the biodiversity in the region including plants that Perth and Albany have – and many of the ecosystems of the broader southwest corner.”

What can we – the public – do?

“If you’re visiting, enjoy the wildflowers and orchids but stick to designated tracks. A lot of the damage happens when people go off track and start stomping around, because until they flower, orchids are very hard to see.

Whether you live here or not, everyone can grow native plants in their garden. Around 70% of the land in the Margaret River Region is privately owned – so it makes a big difference whether you plant natives, or exotic species that become weeds.

Whether you grow an edible or exotic garden, you can still have that blending and interplanting with native species. Not only will it look beautiful, but you’ll attract a whole suite of native pollinators and animals like bird life, lizards, quendas – beautiful to look at, but they perform a whole lot of valuable services like pest control. The blue wrens love having a feed on bugs in my veggie garden, picking caterpillars off the broccoli!

There’s a bunch of native nurseries producing tubestock of endemic local species. Tubestock are very cheap to buy, just a few dollars each, and they perform better in the long run, quickly outgrowing the pricier advanced plants.”

Hank Durlik, Margaret River Exposed

Hank, how did you catch the orchid hunting bug?

“I grew up here in the 60s, in the forestry settlement just outside town. My father was a forester, which is now a park ranger, and our backyard was the forest, river, creeks, flowers and orchids. It’s how I got my affinity for wildflowers.

Margaret River was a one-street town full of houses, a pub and a service station back then. We didn’t have a TV, and we had to create our own entertainment.

Being surrounded by bush I did a lot of walking and in spring would find so many orchids. In those days – shock horror – you’d pick them! I’d come home with a bug bunch of orchids, put them in a vase and that sparked conversation for the evening – everyone marvelled at the beauty.”

Hank “Orchid Hunter” Durlik, Margaret River Exposed. Photo: Tim Campbell

How do interstate and international visitors react to the wildflowers?

“Visitors love the wildflowers in this region, they’re just gobsmacked with the environment here. In recent weeks I’ve had people from Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand join me on tour. They all say the same thing – they haven’t seen anything like it elsewhere.

It’s the terrain and vegetation that blows them away. They go to Perth, see the carpets of wildflowers in the mid-west, then come to the Margaret River Region thinking it will be the same.

Whether you visit the coast, forest or bushland, it’s got this messy beauty about it. The whole bush is tangled, un-manicured – it’s wonderfully chaotic with bright splashes of wildflower colour. And there’s something flowering all year round.

The book leaf has amazing greens and a seed pod that opens up, the tassel flower is vivid green with such pleasing shape. The snotty gobble tree – such a beautiful messy tree with black bark. I point out unusual plants, which guests love.”

The tangled Margaret River Region bush is wonderfully chaotic with bright splashes of colour. Photo: Tim Campbell

Picking is of course a no-no; how can we enjoy wildflowers?

“We have pristine coast and bush – please treat it with respect. Take rubbish home, and don’t take dogs into National Parks.

Hop on a tour if you’re new to orchid spotting; I teach people how to find them, and we’re always late for lunch as we have such a brilliant time.

A spider orchid will have hairs on its leaf and stem, and it’s a different colour green from the understory. When guests spy it, they get so excited and it becomes like hide and seek.

I get emails from past guests; “Look what I just found!” You can tell they’re hooked!

There’s been a trend with younger people appreciating wildflowers. You can come to Margaret River and completely miss the orchids, the flowers, and just do the breweries. I do the opposite!”