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The Work of the Centre for Economic Botany
(With Particular Reference to Orchids)

Please note: The nature of this article means that since it's publication in September 1998 much of the information will have changed. For the latest information about the Centre for Economic Botany please visit the latest CEB web pages.

Economic botany has always been a key aspect of Kew's science and the Centre for Economic Botany (CEB) provides a focal point for current research into useful and potentially useful plants. The building which houses the CEB is named after Kew's most famous economic botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. This building also houses more than 73,500 botanical samples and artefacts, a collection originally conceived by the first official Director of Kew, Sir William J. Hooker, in 1847 to "render great service, not only to the scientific botanist, but to the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and the cabinet maker and artisans of every description, who might here find the raw materials employed in their several professions correctly named".

Almost 150 years later the significance of this statement is more apparent than ever, given increasing awareness of the importance of plants as sources of useful raw materials, and the Economic Botany Collections form an important component of Kew's scientific collections. Orchids are represented in the Collections by over 150 items representing a very diverse range of taxa. Some of the interesting items include medicinal tea from Jumellea fragrans; a tobacco pipe from Grand Caymen Island, formed from the pseudobulb of Schomburgkia thomsoniana; and fibres from many species including Cyrtopodium andersonii and Diplocaulobium solomonense. Medicinal species are also well represented, including Orchis, Ophrys, and Gastrodia species.

CEB is currently involved in a wide range of research projects, particularly in the UK and tropical dryland regions. Current projects include:

    Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL). A major database focusing on the uses of over 6,000 dryland species, mainly from the tropics and subtropics. It currently holds data on eight orchid taxa, with uses categorized following the Taxonomic Databases Working Group (TDWG) Economic Botany Data Standard, developed within the CEB.

    Plantas Do Nordeste (PNE). A joint Kew/Brazilian initiative in dry north-east Brazil which is contributing to the identification, sustainable use and management of plant resources.

    People & Plants Initiative. A joint initiative with UNESCO and WWF to promote and support community-based ethnobotanical work in order to contribute to the sustainable and equitable use of plant resources.

    Poisonous Plants and Fungi. This joint project, with the Medical Toxicology Unit of Guy's & St Thomas' Hospital Trust, has designed an interactive, image based computer system to enable non-botanists to identify potentially harmful plants and fungi. The current commercially available system, with both medical and non-medical versions, focuses on plants in Britain and Ireland, but further versions are being developed for other geographic regions, as well as for fungi.

    Traditional Remedies Surveillance. CEB is collaborating with the Medical Toxicology Unit of Guy's & St Thomas' Hospital Trust to determine the frequency and severity of adverse reactions to herbal remedies in the UK. There is a particular interest in traditional Chinese medicine; in this system orchids are frequently used; for example, Gastrodia tubers are used for the treatment of bronchial problems.

CEB also plays in major role in the collection and dissemination of information about useful plants throughout the world. Using the unique resources available at Kew, staff in the CEB are able to provide comprehensive, authoritative answers to many questions concerning economic plants. Around 700 enquiries are answered each year, and this number is growing rapidly. Enquiries are handled from the public, scientific and commercial bodies, and charges are made on a consultancy basis where appropriate. A prime source of information, which enables staff to answer such enquiries, is the Economic Botany Bibliographic Database. This contains over 156,000 literature references covering the uses of plants from around the world (excluding major crop species); there are estimated to be over 600 references to orchids in the database. It provides instant and flexible access to detailed information; searches are possible by species, vernacular names, geographical area, uses and/or properties, or indeed any combination of these parameters. The depth and breadth of the database's focus on plant uses are unique.

From this issue of the Orchid Research Newsletter onwards, recent literature on useful orchids will be extracted from the Economic Botany Bibliographic Database and added to the existing bibliography.

If you require further details on any aspect of the work of the CEB please contact:
James Morley
Tel: +44 (0)181 332 5719; fax +44 (0)181 332 5768
World-Wide Web

News from Correspondents
Update on Reference Collections of Orchid Flowers

Last Updated September 3, 1998.
Copyright The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.