Marjorie Purnell sorting out the orchids from a trip along the May River in the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell sorting out the orchids from a trip along the May River in the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Picture: Contributed.

Mackay’s jungle orchid hunter extraordinaire

MACKAY-BORN Marjorie Purnell was infatuated with orchids, having struck her passion while living amid tropical jungles overseas.

Born in 1926, Marj - as she was affectionately known - grew up between the Pioneer Valley, Seaforth, Mackay and Nindaroo - the middle of James and Winifred Waddell's seven children.

She became a nurse and during World War II worked at Mackay Base Hospital.

Nurse Marjorie Purnell was working at Mackay Base Hospital during World War II when she met her husband Francis ‘Buster’ Purnell. Picture: Contributed.
Nurse Marjorie Purnell was working at Mackay Base Hospital during World War II when she met her husband Francis ‘Buster’ Purnell. Picture: Contributed.

There she fell in love with Francis 'Buster' Purnell - a Victorian soldier returning from PNG with malaria.

They married in September 1945 and moved to Melbourne after the war.

 

Marjorie Purnell (nee Waddell) married Francis Purnell on September 21, 1945. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell (nee Waddell) married Francis Purnell on September 21, 1945. Picture: Contributed.

But, as their son Alan recounts, by 1948 the bitter Melbourne winters had enticed them to relocate to New Guinea, where the Australian government provided housing and there was no income tax.

A change of scene at Lae

Marjorie worked at the General European Hospital - a former American makeshift hospital in Lae, the second-largest city in PNG, and Buster for Trans Australia Airlines.

There they had two children, Kerry and younger sibling Alan.

It was basic living in the early stages, Alan said, the first family car an ex-army weapons vehicle without doors or windows.

Marjorie Purnell standing beside the family's first car in Lae in PNG – a somewhat impractical vehicle in the tropics, without doors or windows. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell standing beside the family's first car in Lae in PNG – a somewhat impractical vehicle in the tropics, without doors or windows. Picture: Contributed.

They also acquired a three-tonne single-cab truck with a hatch above the passenger's seat where a gun had once been mounted - another remnant of the war.

Marjorie Purnell and husband Francis ‘Buster’ Purnell standing in front of the three-tonne single-cab truck found among the remains of war. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell and husband Francis ‘Buster’ Purnell standing in front of the three-tonne single-cab truck found among the remains of war. Picture: Contributed.

Although their home was humble - powered only by a wind-up crank generator - it was on lush acreage, an avid gardener's dream.

Alan said grass would grow inches overnight with six to eight inches of rain.

"Incredible thunderstorms; it was like living in a greenhouse or an orchid house," he said.

"Things grew like nobody's business."

Meanwhile, Alan said, locals learned expats were fond of orchids - or 'pulpuls'.

He said they sold them for shillings, and so many naturally found their way into Marj's backyard.

The passion for orchids ignites

Marj strapped the epiphytic orchids - those that grow onto other plants - to her many frangipani trees, Alan said.

She taped ground orchids like vandas to garden beds, letting the roots trail into a composted mix of foraged coconut husks.

Alan said the beds were made from recycled Marsden matting - interlocking sheets used by American forces to create temporary airfields on top of bulldozed ground.

Marjorie Purnell in 1968 with her innovative orchid growing system that used recycled Marsden matting left behind by WWII American forces in Papua New Guinea. Pictured here are mostly vanda orchids. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell in 1968 with her innovative orchid growing system that used recycled Marsden matting left behind by WWII American forces in Papua New Guinea. Pictured here are mostly vanda orchids. Picture: Contributed.

Soon enough, Marj's orchid infatuation surpassed what could be purchased from the local market.

This may explain her close friendship with famed orchidist Andree Millar.

Together, the women hunted across PNG for new and exotic orchid species.

And little Alan was strung along.

Searching high and low

"We did it everywhere … ," Alan said.

"I'll never forget outside Nadzab in this hot savanna paddock thing and there's this sapling.

"And up in the top of the tree is this orchid.

"And Andree said, 'Alan, shoot up that tree' … I was probably eight or nine or 10 or something like that.

"I said, 'but it's full of kuracums' (green ants).

"She said, 'Oh don't be a sook' …

"I'm thinking I'm gonna shoot up this tree, grab this thing and drop down as quick as I can.

"Famous last words; as soon as they felt the movement, they came out and swarmed - thousands of the things.

"So I start backing down the tree and Andree's got this walking stick, just a round piece of timber, and she's, "No, Alan! Don't come down. Go up!'

"And she's poking me … I've got the bastards biting me and at that age you don't have underpants … I avoided Andree and the bloody stick and I just jumped out of the tree.

"I was covered in 'em and these things when they bite, they put their mandibles in and their legs are up in the air.

"They're giving it everything."

The orchid stayed in the tree.

Marjorie Purnell, with her son Alan Purnell, collecting dendrobium orchids at Tami Island off Finchshafen, 80km east of Lae, Papua New Guinea, in 1967. Picture: Contributed
Marjorie Purnell, with her son Alan Purnell, collecting dendrobium orchids at Tami Island off Finchshafen, 80km east of Lae, Papua New Guinea, in 1967. Picture: Contributed

The favourite

Marjorie began to experiment and create hybrids of her favourite orchid species, Ceretobe Dendrobium.

Forest horticulturalist and tree breeder Neville Howcroft, who lived in PNG for five decades, said her collection had "jolly big plants".

"Marj knew a good plant when she saw one and she knew how to go about the breeding of them," Mr Howcroft said.

"They were one of the loves of her life."

Mackay and District Orchid Society member Rod Shoesmith concurred.

"I'd say there would be her husband and there'd be the orchids," Mr Shoesmith said.

"I'm not quite sure which one came first".

Marjorie Purnell sorting out the orchids from a trip along the May River in the West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Picture: Contributed.
Marjorie Purnell sorting out the orchids from a trip along the May River in the West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Picture: Contributed.

Spreading the love

Marj was president of Lae's horticultural society, organised orchid shows, won orchid competitions and judged others.

She went to an overseas world orchid conference, gave cuttings to locals so they could establish a commercial nursery and sold hybrids to Madang's Orchid Park.

But still, Marj remained fiercely protective of her plants.

'Going finish'; back to Mackay roots

After three decades of living in Lae, Marjorie gave most of her collection to the university gardens and moved back to Australia, to Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, in 1972.

But it was not tropical enough for Marj, Alan said, so she went home to Mackay in 1974, meanwhile having amicably separated from Buster after 27 years of marriage.

She purchased part of an old cane farm at 8 Holmes Drive, Beaconsfield, and it was not long before it too was filled with orchids.

Four sheds worth, in fact, totalling more than 10,000 specimens.

There she invented more than 40 new dendrobium species, naming many after friends and family.

Mr Shoesmith believes there was probably more.

Just some of the 10,000 orchids at Marjorie Purnell's Beaconsfield home in Mackay. Picture: Contributed.
Just some of the 10,000 orchids at Marjorie Purnell's Beaconsfield home in Mackay. Picture: Contributed.

The art of orchid inventing

Alan said the propagation room was on the sunny side of the house, packed with little test-tube-looking glass flasks that let air flow.

Each had a carefully placed seed bud inside, with gel as the water, which Marj methodically transferred into bigger containers as they grew.

She took copious notes, with an idea of what she hoped for, Alan said.

"Some took, and some weren't what she believed would come out, he said.

"It's like cattle."

But breeding orchids takes longer than breeding cattle.

Mr Shoesmith said the process from cross-pollination to the first bloom could take years.

"Dendrobes, they'll grow relatively quickly," he said.

"You can get seedlings and see a result in, I'd say, maybe five years … then they can be the biggest rubbish of all time and you throw them in the bin and start again."

Involving herself in Mackay's orchid community

Marj's nephew Graham Waddell recalls helping her rescue orchids from felled trees at Cathu State Forest.

She is an honorary life member of the Mackay and District Orchid Society, having been president from 1976-78 and 1981-85, as well as president of the Tropical Queensland Orchid Council for two years in the late '80s.

She also wrote a regular gardening column in the Daily Mercury for 12 years under the pseudonym, 'Ceratobe' and her private garden doubled as a specialist nursery.

Her buyers were sure to find an eclectic mix, with many species brought back from PNG like Dendrobium lasianthera - the 'Sepik Blue'.

It grew "above 12-25 feet of marsh water in mosquito-ridden, muddy swamps" along the Sepik River, Marjorie told the Daily Mercury in April, 1982.

Den. Lasianthera – the ‘Sepik Blue’ – was a popular orchid of choice for hybridisation by Marjorie Purnell. Picture: Contributed.
Den. Lasianthera – the ‘Sepik Blue’ – was a popular orchid of choice for hybridisation by Marjorie Purnell. Picture: Contributed.

Mr Shoesmith said many thought Marj's ceretobe collection was, at the time, the best in Australia, as it had species from PNG that became impossible to import because of export restriction laws introduced in the 1970s.

Where are Marjorie's orchids now?

After Marjorie died in 1989, aged 63, her orchids were purchased by Orchid Ways. The Homebush orchid and plant display house, which opened in 1991, became a tourist attraction before closing in 2008.

It's believed there are still species in private collections. Where is a mystery waiting to be solved.

If you have or know of anyone who has a species invented by Marjorie Purnell get in touch by emailing heidi.petith@dailymercury.com.au


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