previous next

The Twentieth - A Century Of Rapid Change





Over a bibulous Christmas holiday I cast my thoughts back to the development of orchids and orchid science over the past century. Much has changed and the orchid world known to Rolfe, Schlechter, Sander, and their contemporaries has changed more than most. I would like here to consider five landmark events and their significance.

The first is the discovery of the endomycorrhizal relationship in orchids by the French scientist Noel Bernard in 1899. This led to detailed studies of the relationship by Hans Burgeff during which he elucidated the role of the fungal partner in providing the orchid with nutrients. The formulation by Lewis Knudsen of nutrient agars for growing orchids in vitro in 1946 further developed Bernard's pioneering work. The culmination of this work was Georges Morel's development of multiplying orchids by growing excised meristems on nutrient agar in 1960. This has ensured that orchids have increased in popularity as they have been mass-produced and become more affordable.

My second landmark is the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in the 1960s. Their work laid the foundations of molecular science that is only now beginning to be applied to orchids at all levels. The publication of the first volume of Genera Orchidacearum, which incorporates molecular data, will come to be seen as a milestone in our understanding of orchid phylogeny and classification. Mark Chase at Kew and his colleagues are leading the development of ever more powerful tools for our understanding of orchids and their biology.

My third landmark is the rise of conservation as an issue, thanks to the pioneering work of Peter Scott and others in the 1950s when forming the World Wildlife Fund. Loss of habitat and extinction are the result of many factors, but the activities of man have been little short of catastrophic in many places. New roads have opened up many previously inaccessible places. Unfortunately, many new roads in the tropics have been opened, rapidly followed by forest destruction. Easier and faster travel has been both beneficial and deleterious. It has given us a far better idea of orchid in their natural habitats, their biology, ecology, and cultural needs. On the other side, orchids have suffered as forest is destroyed, and plants have been collected for cultivation in increasing quantities.

My fourth landmark is Stalky Dunsterville and Leslie Garay's Venzuelan Orchids Illustrated (1965-1979) in six volumes. This provided the first comprehensive account of one of the richest orchid floras of South America. However, its significance lies also in the format adopted. Dunsterville's clear and detailed drawing, all from life, were complemented by Garay's clear text on the opposite page. This format has been widely adopted for orchid floras elsewhere and is an ideal format for CD-ROM and Internet technology.

Finally, I would single out Bob Dressler's book, The Orchids: Natural History and Classification (1981). The clarity of style, comprehensiveness, and detail of this erudite and eminently readable account introduced orchids to a broad spectrum of readers. It is the best popular scientific account of the orchids, their biology, evolution, and classification. Its influence has led a broad church to understand the basics of orchid biology, evolution, and classification. It has also inspired a generation of young scientists to work on orchids, the benefit of which we are only beginning to appreciate.

I personally have had many memorable moments in my 26 years studying orchids and have had the privilege of meeting many of the movers and shakers during that time. If my time in the next century is half as interesting as the last, I have much to anticipate and I trust that you all have as well.

Phillip Cribb



Title Page
Orchid Herbrium Type Catalogue
Linnean Society Orchid Conference

25 January 2000.
Copyright The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.