Astonishing Orchids Bridging Science, Cultivation, and the Orchid Trade

Reading list

Marc Biver

Those who have visited the ongoing exhibition at the BnL, or have leafed through the catalogue “Vu Gäert a Bicher”, will have come across the name of Jean-Jules Linden, the 19th century Luxembourg botanist, explorer and businessman. From his voyages of exploration to the subtropical countries of South America, Linden brought back to Europe a large number of hitherto unknown orchids (among others). He contributed to their scientific study and made them known to a wider public. He was also a keen editor of botanical and horticultural journals, some of which were entirely dedicated to his favourite family, the orchids.

In the following, we present a number of modern books and resources covering the orchid family. These encompass purely scientific (botanical) publications, growing guides intended for amateurs and/or professional gardeners, as well as books on the cultural, economic and historical aspects of the orchid trade and also a few regional/local orchid florae.

Genera Orchidacearum (edited by A.M. Pridgeon et al.)

Available at the library

Its principal editor, Alec M. Pridgeon, has been the leading authority on orchid botany for a long time, and he was seconded by a very large number of specialist colleagues in this first attempt ever to treat the whole of the orchid family in a systematic and comprehensive way, based on molecular data of more than 800 genera, which resulted in this monumental, six-volume work, intended for an expert readership of researchers or students. It is the only up-to-date reference work of the Orchidaceae, down to generic level, available in English.

The genera are consecutively numbered, with references to the original publications, type species, lists of synonyms and more or less detailed descriptions of anatomy and morphology, seed morphology, phytochemistry, phylogenetics and keys to lower systematic ranks. There are chapters on geographical distribution (illustrated by very detailed maps), palynology, cytogenetics, ecology, pollination, economic uses, cultivation and taxonomy. Each volume ends with a bibliography and indices to systematic names and authors. The volumes are well illustrated by line drawings and excellent colour photographs. (for a  review, see, for instance, G. Gerlach, Plant Syst. Evol. 245 (2004) , 143-144).

Orchidaceae (William Louis Stern)

Available online (ebook)

This book is part of the series Anatomy of the Monocotyledons by Oxford University Press and may be regarded as the only currently available, up-to-date description of orchid anatomy, and as such it is an indispensable resource for researchers and students working in this field. It may, of course, also be of interest to orchid amateurs in search of a more profound understanding of the anatomy of their favourite family. It offers an in-depth description of the structures and relationships of all parts of the plant (cells and tissues of leaves, stems, and roots) and it follows the taxonomy established in Genera Orchidacearum (see above). The book is richly illustrated with over 100 photomicrographs and numerous original line drawings and is electronically available for cardholders of the BnL.

Die Orchideen Luxemburgs (J.-M. Mangen, G. Colling, J.A. Massard et al.)

Available at the library - Available at the library (Second edition)

The only flora dedicated to the orchid species endemic to our country was published some thirty years ago by the Luxembourg biologist and ecologist Jean-Marie Mangen, in collaboration with colleagues from the Société des Naturalistes and the National History Museum. A second edition was published in 1997.

It contains a very readable introduction into the general biology of the orchid family. It is intended for a non-specialist public, yet does not sacrifice scientific accuracy. Endemic species, their typical habitat and ecology are presented very clearly and the work is beautifully illustrated by colour photographs (mostly by F. Lommer) and masterly aquarelle paintings by A. Johnston. Special emphasis is placed on conservation issues and the endangerment of certain species.

From the review by Luxembourg biologist Claude Meisch in the Bulletin de la Société des Naturalistes luxembourgeois (1994, Vol. 84 (95)):

Le projet d’un livre sur les Orchidées du Luxembourg remonte à une conférence faite par M. Fernand Lommer, photographe-amateur, le 29 janvier 1990 devant la SNL. Au cours de sa conférence, M. Lommer avait présenté une série pratiquement complète de diapositives sur les espèces d'orchidées connues au Luxembourg. Il fut décidé de publier un ouvrage destiné à un large public plutôt qu’aux seuls botanistes, mais rassemblant néanmoins des données scientifiquement exactes. Une large part est faite aux menaces pesant sur les orchidées ainsi que sur la protection de leurs biotopes.
Les photos de l'ouvrage ont été prises par MM. Fernand Lommer, employé des Ponts et Chaussées, André Hildgen, instituteur et Mme Bebby Lofy, employée privée. Le textes ont été rédigés par MM. Jean-Marie Mangen, professeur de biologie, qui est aussi responsable de la coordination de l'ouvrage, Guy Colling, ingénieur-agronome, Jos. Massard, professeur de biologie et Emile Medernach, fonctionnaire en retraite. Les dessins ont été faits par Alan Johnston, peintre naturaliste. La mise en page a été réalisée par Mme Simone Backes, conservateur au Musée.

Orchids of Tropical America (Joe E. Meisel)

Available at the library - Available online (ebook)

Joe E. Meisel is an American biologist and ecologist who has published widely on the topics of tropical orchid ecology, diversity and preservation.

This work is a short, accessible and comprehensive account of the orchid genera endemic to Central and South America, where J.J. Linden made most of his new discoveries. Its general, very readable chapters on all aspects of orchid biology (with particular reference to the subtropical genera) should be useful to experts and amateurs alike. Even though short, the book presents all the important facts (biology and ecology, diversity and distribution, conservation) in a clear and very complete manner. A highly commendable (and useful!) chapter on how to identify orchids, with an illustrated glossary of orchidological terms and key orchid characteristics will be of particular value to amateurs. The main and central part of the book is dedicated to concise, yet detailed descriptions of the tropical genera, each illustrated by colour photographs of typical species. The dark side of the expedition voyages led by western countries, i.e. the ruthless and destructive exploitation of natural resources by colonial traders and their devastating impact on endemic plant populations is hinted at in the introduction. The book is rounded off by a list of conservation sites (by country) and an extensive bibliography.

Britain’s Orchids: A Field Guide to the Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland (Sean Cole and Mike Waller)

Available online (ebook)

This is a modern field guide intended to help experts and amateurs alike, by a variety of techniques, to identify orchids endemic to the British Isles. We chose to include it in this list because many of the species can be found on the continent as well, and because of its modern presentation and its novel approach towards species identification (e.g. the complementary way in which both colour photographs and drawings are used). Attention is drawn to morphological details that help identify species unambiguously, and direct comparisons are made between species or genera that are easily confused by newcomers. While identification is the main topic of the work, there are good introductory chapters on general orchid biology, pollination and symbiosis with fungi. We like to mention an interesting chapter on formerly native, now extinct, and also on adventive orchids from the British Isles - aspects generally neglected by other field guides or regional florae. A good choice of literature references is given at the end.

Wild Orchids of Texas (Joe Liggio and Ann Orto Liggio)

Available online (ebook)

Texas is the largest, but also the driest of the 48 contiguous states of the US, and hence the one with the fewest endemic orchid species – this small American orchid flora is, however, more than offset by a unique and thorough discussion of the habitats of the individual species. Thus 10 different natural regions of Texas are presented, with detailed maps. Genus and species accounts are organised alphabetically, accompanied by colour photographs, and they are written in a natural, rather than a traditional, botanical style. The same holds for the chapters on orchid biology, mycorrhizal relationships and the like. In the words of a reviewer: ‘Clearly written by lovers of nature, the work benefits by D.H. Riskind serving as scientific advisor, who helped maintain high standards, but did not depress it under a heavy botanical style.’

(see also the review by J.T. Atwood in The Quarterly Review of Biology (2001), 76(1), 86-87)

Vascular epiphytes: general biology and related biota (D.H. Benzing)

Available at the library - Available online (ebook)

Most of the subtropical orchids discovered in the South American forests and described in his numerous publications by Linden were in fact epiphytes, that is, species living on trees (or on some other plant). For a long time, it had been believed that epiphytic plants were necessarily parasitic or hemiparasitic plants (such as the mistletoe). It turned out that epiphytic orchids use trees for support only, they live in the canopy, perched on branches, clinging to the trunk, colonizing sites in which small patches of humus may form from fallen leaves, twigs and other vegetable material. Epiphytes extend fine roots into this humus to access its nutrients. As far as their needs for water and minerals are concerned, these epiphytic orchids rely entirely on rain falling onto and mist captured by their aerial roots. Epiphytes are an important (they may form some 50% of all vascular flora in some tropical environments, this amounts to some 10% of all vascular plants), yet totally under-studied botanical group, and many questions pertaining to their biology and metabolic peculiarities remain unanswered.

This book is a thirty-year-old classic in that it has, for a long time, been the only systematic work entirely devoted to this intriguing plant assemblage. It provides an introduction to their occurrence, phylogeny, physiology, ecology and distribution. It does not only cover carbon, water and nutrient relations, but also topics such as reproductive strategies and plant-animal interactions.

(see also the review by N. Michele Holbrook in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (1991), 6(3), 103-104)

Air plants: epiphytes and air gardens (D.H. Benzing)

Available online (ebook)

This is a more recent and less technical book on epiphytic plants – see above for an explanation of epiphytism and its importance in the plant realm. The author, David Benzing, takes the reader on a tour of the taxonomic groups to which epiphytes belong, and these are by no means limited to orchids, but they also comprise aroids, bromeliads and ferns, for instance. The topics covered by this work include all those already mentioned above. In addition, it also pays special attention to important phenomena such as adaptive trade-offs and leaf economics. The book is accessible to readers unfamiliar with technical botany; it features a lavish illustration programme, references, a glossary, and tables.

Plants on plants: the biology of vascular epiphytes (G. Zotz)

Available online (ebook)

This book, part of Springer’s Fascinating Life Sciences series, is a timely and modern review of our knowledge about epiphytes (for an explantion of epiphytism and its importance, see above).

The first chapters address the question of what epiphytism really is, what the peculiarities of the species in question are, and several classification schemes are proposed (a lot of room is given to taxonomical problems). An entire chapter is devoted to the biogeography of epiphytes and longitudinal and elevational trends observed in their distribution, followed by up-to-date chapters on functional anatomy and morphology, physiology and ecology, nutrition and reproduction, modern insights into metabolism (photosynthesis, carbon gain and growth), population ecology and interactions with other organisms. A recurring theme is the frequent comparison between epiphytes and non-epiphytes, which makes the book accessible to non-experts in field. It is hard to think of a topic in connection with epiphytism not addressed in this book.

Understanding orchids: an uncomplicated guide to growing the world’s most exotic plants (William Cullina)

Available at the library

This book is meant for the orchid-loving amateur – from those seeking to learn to appropriately care for just one or a few plants on their window sill, to those who are about to build a substantial collection of hundreds or thousands of these fascinating creatures. The book gives a scientifically accurate account of many orchid genera along with the necessary explanations on orchid biology in simple, nontechnical terms, always with the aspect of cultivation in mind: for each genus, optimal light, air and temperature conditions are listed along with valuable practical information on how to achieve them, often on a DIY basis, followed by instructions for care, fertilization, repotting, growth media and reproduction. In short, it is probably the best and most complete book any prospective or accomplished orchid grower could hope for.

Jean Linden: master of the orchid (Nicole Ceulemans)

Available at the library - Disponible en bibliothèque (version originale française)

The author, Nicole Ceulemans, is Jean Jules Linden’s great-great-grandchild. Her book represents a carefully researched and lavishly illustrated biography of her ancestor, that documents Linden’s life from his childhood to his first expedition voyages to South America, his horticultural companies specializing in the trade of tropical plants that laid the ground for his fame and fortune, and finally his botanical and horticultural publications that earned him lasting scientific recognition. Linden collaborated with the two most prominent orchid specialists of the 19th century, John Lindley and Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach, who built a scientific career on the hundreds of newly discovered orchid species that Linden himself, and later the plant collectors working for his horticultural societies, brought back to Europe from Central and South America.

A history of orchids in South America (Carlos Ossenbach)

Available at the library

This work summarizes the history of botanical exploration in South America, in the context of the social, political and economic development of the region, until about the third decade of the 19th century, and leads us through a fascinating period of botanical history.

Many travelers, like Linden, risked their lives, fought each other, sometimes to death, over new discoveries, and many never made it back from these perilous missions. The quest for unknown plants, that could be taken home, hopefully cultivated and be sold to rich connoisseurs in Europe, led to many acts of ruthless exploitation of the local resources, in complete disrespect to their rightful owners, and sometimes to the downright destruction of entire plant populations.

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