Gleanings from the Journal – Have Our Orchids Changed?

Ten years ago, the then NOSSA secretary, Cathy Houston, wrote an article reflecting upon orchid name changes.  Since then there have been more name changes. The issues she raised then are still pertinent today. Whilst we continue to learn more about our orchids, name changes are going to happen.

NOSSA Journal Volume 31 No 2 March 2007

HAVE OUR ORCHIDS CHANGED?                                                           Cathy Houston (Secretary)

This month the Native Orchid Society of South Australia celebrates its thirtieth “birthday”. A review of the first five years of the Society’s Newsletters/Journals (yes, they were newsletters in the earliest days) reveals some interesting points. By 1979 “A total of 110 species [of orchids] and 14 varieties” were accepted. The following are some interesting aspects about the knowledge of, and what was then current thinking about, our orchids at that time. It must be remembered that no comprehensive book on South Australian orchids existed in those days, especially not any field guides. The most useful “tools” the members had to work with were Blacks Flora of South Australia and W.H. Nicholls “Orchids of Australia”. In 1979 “A Checklist of Orchidaceae on South Australia” by J.Z. Weber: Changes introduced in the new ‘Black’s Flora” by R. Bates, appeared as a full issue of the Native Orchid Society of South Australia Journal.

Today we sometimes struggle to grasp all the fine differences when orchid species, or species groups, are split, but spare a thought for those wanting to identify with what they have seen in the field back in about 1979. An article by R. Bates describes the “Variations within the species Caladenia dilatata R.Br. in South Australia”. “There are, at present, two recognised varieties” viz. C. dilatata var. dilatata and C. dilatata var. concinna. Within these two varieties are further more divisions into distinct sub-varieties or races! At that time there were six distinct forms recognised; how much easier today, now that they are named as species. These would now include C. tentaculata, C. verrucosa, C. stricta, C. toxochila and C. conferta.

Orchid 1 Arachnorchis tentaculata

 Arachnorchis tentaculata (King spider Orchid)  syn Caladenia tentaculata

Recognition of what could be species has long been apparent. Take for example the article written in 1980 about two forms of Pterostylis nana, viz. what we commonly refer to as the ‘Hills’ form and the ‘Mallee’ form. This article documents the obvious morphological differences and illustrates this with line drawings and a map showing distributions of the two. Electronic Orchids of S.A. currently recognises five possible species of P. nana for South Australia. These are probably all un-named, since David Jones, in “Native Orchids of Australia”, does not recognise true P. nana in our state. Similarly, an article written in 1981 discusses the P. alatascabrarobusta complex. The author recognises there are “at least four species of this group in South Australia”. This is the first time the authors acknowledge they should be elevated to species, not just accepted as varieties or forms. At that time P. robusta was treated at varietal level, viz. P. scabra var. robusta or P. alata var. robusta. Ultimately most of these have been elevated to species level (P. dolichochila, P. erythroconcha, P. robusta, and P. striata).

It was noted that in 1978 David Jones and Ray Nash were currently working on Pterostylis. Further to that Les Nesbitt notes that of the sixty or so Pterostylis in Australia, South Australia has twenty-two species. One wonders what the count is now. It is well known that David Jones is currently/still working on the Pterostylis group, with more species being recognised regularly.

Thelymitra x irregularis

Thelymitra x irregularis or Pink Spotted Sun Orchid was photographed in 2009 near Macclesfield

In a series of articles produced about “Our rarest orchids” in 1977 we find the comment “Very few of our orchids are thought to be extinct… . “One wonders what that number would be considered to be today. The same article talks about the demise of Pterostylis cucullata and the possibility that it may no longer exist in the wild. Certainly this is one of our highly endangered species for which recovery actions are being undertaken these days. [N.O.S.S.A. members have an opportunity to assist with this work starting on April 14th – see diary dates.] In 1977 there was excitement when, following a field trip to Belair National Park one member returned the following day and “the elusive Pterostylis cucullata” was seen “growing in association with P. curta”. In 1981, following a discussion and review of endangered orchids in South Australia, R. Bates writes “There are a number of endangered species in S.A. which have not yet been named. It is not unlikely that some of these will become extinct before they are even described properly.” With such a large number of as yet undescribed orchids in our state, let us hope this does not happen.

Naturally occurring hybrids and the naming of such, has been debated regularly within botanical circles. In 1978 this insight is shown by Ray Nash who “guided us to a nearby patch of Thelymitra macmillanii,…… Ray’s view is that this will probably turn out to be a hybrid, possibly between antennifera (which it closely resembles) and rubra or luteocilium.” In 1980 T. decora [T. x truncata] was featured as one of South Australia’s rarest orchids. It was thought to be of hybrid origin and three forms were recognised then. The probable parents were T. ixioides x T. longifolia, T. ixioides x T. pauciflora, and T. ixioides x T. mucida. Today with the naming of many species within the T. pauciflora complex, it is now being recognised that there are even more combinations producing similar type flowers, e.g. T. juncifolia, which gives rise to the spotted features, x T. brevifolia.

Name changes always raise controversy. A brief explanation giving some insight into this complex area can be picked up when an author is expanding on the front cover illustration of Corybas. “In fact, they should never have been called Corybas in the first place. They were discovered by Robert Brown during the Flinders Expedition (1801 – 1805), and illustrated by the Austrian Ferdinand Bauer, another of the members of the expedition. Brown called them Corysanthes from the Greek “korys” (a helmet) and “anthos” (a flower), and they were known for many years by that name. However, in this instance, justice was never truly done, because the decision was made to call them Corybas, the name previously allotted by R.A. Salisbury in 1805, on the strength of seeing Bauer’s illustrations.” More recent times have seen that injustice righted with the name reverting to Corysanthes, something brought about through the work of David Jones. Similarly, the latest naming of Corunastylis tepperi follows this, The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, a name that was recognised by R. Bates in an article written in 1981! However, Bates concludes that P. tepperi and P. nigricans are synonymous, so the latter prevails, but “further work needs to be done”! He is also the author of an article depicting some name changes in 1980. If our readers are confused by “new” names, then just think what it was like for those in 1980 when, among others, Caladenia carnea, and all its five varieties, is changed to C. catenata, with all its varieties, two of which are C. catenata var. gigantea and C. catenata var. minor. Two others were elevated to C. pusilla and C. alba.

 

Corysanthes diemenica 077

Corysanthes diemenica (Veined Helmet Orchid)

At one time our esteemed orchidologist was asked to comment on a list of name changes being proposed for the revision of Black’s Flora of S.A. “My first reaction was to state that everyone would be happiest if no changes were made”! However, in fairness to that gentleman, it must be said that by the time he had worked through a lengthy consultation with botanists covering much of Australasia, a revision of type specimens and other material and associated literature, he was clearly of the opinion that the changes were warranted.

Have our orchids changed? Maybe, but what has really changed is our knowledge and understanding of these unique plants. Based on that knowledge, opinions, attitudes and ideas have changed. Thirty years ago it was not “policy to differentiate between the numerous forms of C. patersonii in this State …” Today we have numerous named species in this complex, without actually any Caladenia patersonii as such.

The final word must come from Peter Hornsby when he said “The ultimate aim should be for the reader to know which plant is being discussed, rather than whether or not the title is absolutely correct.”

References:

Native Orchid Society of South Australia Journal.

1. 1977 Vol. 1 #5 2. Vol. 1 #9 3. 1978 Vol. 2 #2 4. Vol. 2 #6
5. Vol. 2 #7 6. 1979 Vol. 3 #1 7. Vol. 3 #6 8. Vol. 3 #9
10. 1980 Vol. 4. #3 11. Vol. 4 #4 12. Vol. 4 #6 13. Vol. 4 #7
14. 1981 Vol. 5 #1 15. Vol. 5 #3 16. Vol. 5 #4 17. Vol. 5 #6

Black J.M. 1978. Flora of South Australia, Part 1, Third Edition. Handbooks Committee, South Australia.

Jones David L. 2006. A Complete Guide to Native Orchids of Australia, Including the Island Territories. Reed New Holland, Australia.

Nicholls, W. H. 1969. Orchids of Australia; The Complete Edition. Thomas Nelson, Australia.

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