Phaius tankervilleae

Also commonly known as Lady Tankerville’s Swamp Orchid.

Scientific Name:       Phaius tankervilleae

Conservation Status in NSW:       Endangered

National Conservation Status:     Endangered


Lady Tankerville’s Swamp Orchid has flower stems up to 2 m tall and large broad leaves with a pleated appearance, both arising from fleshy bulbs near ground level. The large, showy flowers, with up to 16 per stem, have four petals, which are white on the outside and brown with pale veins on the inside.  The central tongue of the flower is mauve and yellow with lobes curling inwards to form a tube. This orchid can be distinguished from the similar Southern Swamp Orchid by the more strongly curved inner tongue.

Location and Habitat

Widespread, though seriously depleted, through Asia, New Guinea and Queensland and at least formerly, in north-east NSW. It may be extinct in north-east NSW.

Habitat and Ecology

“This orchid is found in swampy grassland or swampy forest, including rainforest, eucalypt and paperbark forest.


This species probably has the most spectacular and beautiful flower of any Australian native and should be grown in tropical conditions. It is a native of Australia and being found along the eastern seaboard of Australia from well into NSW right up the East coast of Queensland and on through PNG, Indonesia, Malaysia, Indo-China, Thailand and on into Northern India. Southeast Asia.

This means hot to warm temperatures on the orchid scale. Most growers use a combination of bark and terrestrial soil sometimes adding compost to the mixture. They require heavy watering during the growing period and then a rest period after flowering. There are two related varieties of the plant – one with white on the back of the petals and sepals and one which is the same color as the flower. The white backed varieties display especially well in shady locations. There is also an alba, or uncolored, variety which has golden petals and sepals with a white lip. They have squat pseudobulbs and large, pleated leaves.

They require filtered light in order to flower, but can tolerate most sun except at noon day strength, however they do better in lower light conditions. Repotting should be done after flowering in the spring rest period so that plant has time to acclimate before it starts growing again. One interesting feature of this plant is that the inflorescences can by cut after flowering and placed carefully on sand so initiate new plants. They will usually get big enough in about nine months to be able to pot. One source on the web has recommended this plant for those who consistently overwater since it is one of the orchids that loves to be moist all the time.

The genus has 30 to 50 species (depending upon the source) most of which are also terrestrial although there are several epiphytes in the group. They are widespread found from the Philippines through Australia all the way to Africa and Madagascar. They are generally large to medium size plants with Phaius tankervilleae being the largest.

This magnificent species is a very widespread terrestrial, It has also become naturalised on some of the islands of the West Indies. As one would expect of an orchid with a very wide range, there are several synonyms, and plants from different parts of the range show a little variation in blooms, but all fit within the species. There has also been some confusion over the spelling of the specific epithet, but it seems that the above spelling is now the correct one.

The plant is a large one, with stout fleshy pseudobulbs and several large pleated leaves. Infloresence is a simple raceme which may attain 100cm in height, and bear up to 30 large (10cm) shapely blooms. It is a species which has evolved as a bog dweller,  found in shady areas, around 70% shade, and subject to flooding for at least a few months each year, remaining cool and moist for the rest of the year. In cultivation it is easy, needing a largish container as it grows, with a rich compost.

Large plants only become so if ample food is available, Phaius tankervilleae loves food while in growth. The addition of such things such as Blood and Bone, bone meal, chicken pellets etc., to the compost is welcome and additional feeding with such things as slow release fertilizers and dressings of organics will assist growth.

During Spring and Summer containers should be placed in a saucer of water, so that water level is 2 to 3 inches up the pot, which approximates the natural conditions for this species. It does not grow in water, but in soil and compost just above water level when it s habitat is flooded. An added bonus for the grower, is the species speedy multiplication by way of keikei’s from spent racemes.

If the spike is removed as soon as flowers fall, cut into sections with at least one eye on each, and the sections planted into spagnum moss, a high proportion of the eyes will develop into plantlets which may be potted on as they grow.

There are other colorful Phaius varieties – for instance Phaius flavus have huge yellow/red color blooms, Phaius pulchellus blooms with dark burgundy color flowers, there are others with lime green or dark brown or orange/ copper colored flowers, presenting quite a range for landscaping with orchids.


Collection for horticulture. This showy species is highly sought after.  Clearing and fragmentation of habitat for development, agriculture and roadworks. Drainage of swamps, or pollution from nutrient run-off.

Frequent Fire

Grazing and trampling by domestic stock and feral pigs.

Invasion of habitat by introduced weeds.

What needs to be done to recover this species?

View and photograph native orchids but leave them in the wild.

Buy plants only from licensed nurseries.

Assist with the control of feral pigs.

Protect wetland areas from frequent fire.

Protect wetland areas from pollution particularly by minimising the use of pesticides in and adjacent to swamps.

Fence off swampy areas to protect from grazing stock.

Control Weeds

Protect areas of habitat from clearing, draining or development.

Report any records of Lady Tankerville’s Swamp Orchid to the DEC.

If you have a shaded spot in the garden and would like to grow an orchid or two, try Phaius tankervilleae – they are quite hardy and easy to grow and will reward you with many beautiful blooms.



NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (2002)
Threatened Species of the Upper North Coast of NSW:
Flora. NSW NPWS, Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Noosa District Orchid & Foliage Society

This plant was named after:-   Emma, Lady Tankerville,  Botanist.


Emma Colebrooke or Emma, Lady Tankerville was a British heiress, art patron and botanist. Lady Tankerville’s collection of botanical illustrations are held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.






Date of birth:1752 (age 270 years)

Place of birth: Gatton, Surrey

Parents: James Colebrooke

Children: Lady Margaret Alicia Emma Bennet, Henry Grey Bennet, MORE

Grandchildren: Alicia Beresford , Henry Charles Bennet,MORE

Grandparents: James Colebrooke, Mary Hudson




Phaius australis

Family: Orchidaceae
Distribution: North Queensland to north-eastern New South Wales, usually in wet areas.
Common Name: Swamp lily.
Derivation of Name: Phaius…From Greek phaios, dusky. apparently referring to the flower colour but most are anything but “dusky”!
australis… from Latin, australis, southern, referring to the geographical distribution of the species.
Conservation Status: Listed as Endangered under the EPBC Act* (ie. facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, as determined in accordance with prescribed criteria). Classified as 3VC- under the ROTAP * system.


Until relatively recently, Phaius australis was classified as P. tancarvilleae but plants formerly ascribed to that species have been reclassified as P.australis in the Australian Plant Census. The other Australian species,  P. bernaysii and P.amboinensis were also previously included in P. tancarvilleae (which is now considered to be a related species found in parts of Asia).

P.australis is the most widely cultivated of the Australian species. It is a robust plant with elongated, oval shaped leaves up to about a metre or more long and flowering stems which may reach 2 metres. The flowers are the largest of any Australian orchid and occur in clusters of between four and twelve. The individual flowers are about 100mm diameter and are reddish brown and white in colour. Flowering occurs in spring.

Unlike most Australian terrestrial orchids, P.australis is easily grown. It does best in a large container with a potting mix which is high in humus content. It prefers a position in semi-shade.

P.australis is easily propagated from seed and may also be propagated by division of the clump. It is also reported that new plants can be obtained by cutting the flower stem into pieces and placing them on a moist surface.


EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act  1999

ROTAP = Rare or Threatened Australian Plants   (Briggs and Lee,  1988

For further information refer the  Australian Plants at Risk  page