Large families and genera tend to be bypassed by botanists, there are easier and smaller groups to study. This is particularly true of the large family Orchidaceae, currently estimated to number 25,000 species in 900 genera and with a cosmopolitan distribution, but one that is biased strongly towards the tropics. Despite their undoubted appeal to Naturalists, horticulturalists, photographers and tourists, scientists have tended to avoid them. Getting to know such a large family is more than a life-time’s work, while the amateur interest has led to a plethora of publications, many of which are obtainable only in a few specialist libraries. Access to information is, therefore, difficult and restricted to the few that can afford to buy rare books or have easy access to specialist libraries.

Australia has a rich and diverse orchid flora, much of it peculiar to the continent, particularly those species found outside the tropics. In recent years, considerable advances have been made in their study. The early work of Robert Brown and John Lindley in identifying and naming Australian orchids was generally only available through their published works. Access in recent years by Australian scientists to the collections that they studied, mostly in European herbaria such as Kew, the Natural History Museum in London, Paris and Vienna, has clarified the identity of the orchids that they described, several of the names having been consistently misapplied in Australia. Detailed field work at the population level has also proved to be useful in elucidating the identities of morphologically similar yet distinct species. Australia has a number of cryptic species distinguished readily by their pollinators but with difficulty by casual examination. More recently, the study of orchid DNA has provided significant information on the relationships of species and genera, allowing scientists to choose between hypotheses of relationships based on morphological data that appeared to be of equal merit.

Today, we have a far clearer idea of the true diversity and richness of Australia ’s orchid flora and where it fits into the overall pattern of orchid evolution and diversification. Nevertheless, the matter of orchid identification and naming, dependent, until now upon the use of books with printed dichotomous keys, accompanied by line drawings or photographs, is time-consuming and problematic, even for a specialist. Anyone who has carried Nicholls’, Dockrill’s or Jones’s fine orchid books into the field will know how difficult the longer keys can be to use. It is not very practical and potentially expensive if a shower of rain happens to catch you out. The identification of large numbers of taxa is particularly important nowadays when rapid assessments form an important part of environmental assessments necessary for a range of activities from planning permission for new buildings and roads to the establishment of new nature reserves.

The development of interactive keys suitable for use on portable and desk-top computers has been developed to a high standard. The user-friendly LUCID software, developed in Australia has been taken up by scientists around the world. In Australia alone, it has been used to produce keys to taxa as diverse as gum-trees and legumes. It is an ideal tool for the orchids which rank as one of the largest families of flowering plants on the continent. This package provides an identification system for Australian orchid genera.

David Jones, who leads the team in Canberra who have developed this identification tool for orchids, is a leading authority on Australian plants and, particularly, the native orchids. He has conducted extensive field and herbarium studies, and illustrated and photographed native orchids over a forty-year period across the continent. He has grown native orchids for even longer. He has discovered many novelties in this time, extending considerably the check-list of native orchid species. The interactive key incorporates his and his team’s extensive knowledge of the orchids as both living and preserved plants. It provides the first key that can be used for both fertile and sterile material. All decisions in using the key can be checked against fine drawings and photographs of which the team has the largest archive anywhere.

Orchid identification and naming in Australia is about to become much easier and user-friendly thanks to the dedication of this knowledgeable group of scientists.

Phillip Cribb

Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew , Richmond
Surrey , UK