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Orchid hunting in Cambodia

Christopher Ryan
7 February 2014
Blog team: 
Nursery and Orchid Collection Manager, Christopher Ryan, reports on a recent orchid hunting trip to Cambodia.

In November last year Kew's Senior Orchid Researcher, André Schuiteman and I made a field trip to Cambodia. The orchid flora of Cambodia is not well documented and the main aim of our trip was to build a partnership with the Cambodia Forestry Administration (CFA) to increase our knowledge and understanding of the diversity of orchid species which grow in Cambodia.

November in Cambodia

November falls at the beginning of Cambodia's drier and cooler season and while we knew this wasn't the best time to see orchids, we hoped that access into the mountains would be better on the unmade roads.

An agreement was made between Kew and the CFA which allowed for orchid specimens to be collected and brought back to Kew, where they will be grown on and flower to enable their accurate identification and documentation. We also needed to apply for CITES (Convention in International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permits from both the UK and Cambodian authorities in order to legally export and import the specimens.

Christopher with Paphiopedilum callosum

Field trip arrangements

On arrival in Phnom Penh, final arrangements for the field trip were made with our counterpart in the CFA, Dr Omaliss Keo, Director of the Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity. Mr Menghor Nut, from the Phnom Penh office would accompany us as guide and translator and a 4x4 vehicle and driver, along with accommodation in the field were also arranged.

Our destination was the Central Cardamom Mountain Ranger Station in the Thma Baing District, about a day's drive away to the west of Phnom Penh. The Cardamom Mountain Range runs north to south along the western side of Cambodia and contains large areas of primary and relatively little-disturbed forest, so we anticipated good orchid habitats.

At the ranger station

After a long day’s drive we arrived at the ranger station where we were warmly welcomed by the head ranger and his small team. We discussed our wishes with the rangers and used their local knowledge to plan our days out in the field.

Accommodation in a traditional Cambodian wooden building at the Central Cardamom Ranger Station.

In total we spent six full days in the field. Starting each day in the vehicle and accompanied by a team of rangers and military police, we would drive about 10 km before continuing into the forest on foot. Despite it being the start of the dry season, daytime temperatures were still 30°C and, as it occasionally rained at night, the humidity was close to 100% at times, especially in the cover of the forest.

Collecting Orchids

On the first day in the field it became clear there was an abundance of orchid species for us to collect and we were able to make our first collections at the side of the track leading into the forest. At each collecting location, we recorded GPS coordinates and took notes of the habitat and other defining characters of the growing conditions. At the end of each day we collated all of this information into a database, giving each collection an individual label and number to ensure that our collections corresponded with the CITES permits.

André labelling plants at the end of the day

As we ventured further from the ranger's station and the paths became narrower and, in places, steeper, we continued to find additional orchid species as the aspect, altitude and level of forest cover changed. On the mountain slopes, where we spent most of our time, there was dense, humid, evergreen forest, with numerous epiphytic orchids and ground orchids like the hard-to-spot Anoectochilus lylei.

Anoectochilus lylei

In other areas the habitat was a damp savannah with numerous carnivorous plants, such as Nepenthes, Drosera and Utricularia, and with orchids like Spathoglottis eburnea and Habenaria sp.

Spathoglottis eburnea

One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing a number of flowering clumps of Paphiopedilum callosum, one of the tropical Asian Slipper Orchids. While we didn’t collect this species on this trip, the memory of seeing these spectacularly grand flowers in the wild will remain for a long time.

Paphiopedilum callosum

Next time

In the concluding post of this trilogy, André and I will describe bringing the specimens back to Kew and how they will be used to help the scientific documentation of the Cambodian orchid flora and botanical research undertaken at Kew.

- Christopher –

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16 March 2014
This expedition will help local research efforts as well!! Cedric Jancloes, a lead researcher from the local orchid research network 'OrchidCambodia' met the duo from Kew soon after arrival - it was a great pride for us to see Andre again and to meet Christopher. Cambodian orchid research took a steep turn in 2008 with the creation of the first orchid checklist made with the combined efforts of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the National Museum of Natural History of Paris and a small number of orchid activists. Today, the project has documented over 450 wild orchids in Cambodia - you can find this list <a href="">here</a>. We look forward to the results from this expedition to better and to expand our current checklist. It is great to see that the orchids of Cambodia (the local name for orchids is 'Kesorkol') are receiving more and more attention and we count on this international expedition to validate some of our local findings - Thanks again to Andre and Christopher!
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