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Monocots III: Orchids

Orchidaceae are the largest angiosperm family with approximately 25,000 species in 850 genera, accounting for 8-10% of all flowering plants and one-third of all monocotyledons. The family is distributed worldwide but is most diverse and numerous in the tropics and subtropics, particularly in Mediterranean climatic zones. The orchid floras of many countries are poorly known, and 200-500 new species are being described every year.

Orchid research has a long history at Kew and dates back to the time of Sir Joseph Hooker's Directorship, when orchids grown at Kew were supplied by Hooker to Charles Darwin. The study of these orchids provided Darwin with subjects described in his book, The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1877), which he authored immediately after The Origin of Species.

Kew has one of the oldest collections of living tropical orchids and more orchid scientists than any other single scientific institution. Since the time of Hooker, orchid research at Kew has been based in the Orchid Herbarium and Library, which holds a large collection of preserved herbarium specimens (with more than 30,000 nomenclatural types and 400,000 specimens).

The major objective for the orchid programme is to develop Kew’s systematic and phylogenetic research and expertise so that we remain a world leader in orchid systematics, conservation and evolutionary studies. We also aim to develop expertise, information and products that are useful in the conservation and sustainable development of orchids in their natural habitats.

Orchid seed biology has been studied in the Jodrell Laboratory since the 1950s. This research moved to Wakehurst in 1973 and later was incorporated into the Millennium Seed Bank when that facility was opened. In the Conservation Biotechnology Unit (Aiton House) cultivation of orchids from seeds, particularly European terrestrial orchids, has undergone many improvements and innovations due to the research carried out at Kew.

In the Jodrell, the study of orchid chromosomes began in the 1960s, and this work was extended to molecular systematics with the establishment of the molecular laboratory in 1992. Recently, two new areas of research were initiated, pollination biology and development of two orchid species, Erycina pusilla and Leochilus labiatus, as alternative model organisms.

Conservation biology of British orchids forms part of the UK Government’s Species Recovery Programme. International coordination and promotion of orchid conservation has also been provided through chairing and participation in the IUCN/SSC Orchid Specialist Group, which has run two international conferences and many workshops and produced a textbook on orchid conservation techniques. Advice has also been provided to the British Government, the CITES secretariat and other governments on request. Orchid floral morphology and development have been studied in the Micromorphology Section, and these contributions and others have formed the basis of the orchid volume of the Anatomy of the Monocotyledons series.

Finally, Kew is the editorial centre for the monumental series on orchids, Genera Orchidacearum (GO), which is scheduled to run to six volumes (1-5 have been published and the last one is scheduled to be published in 2012). GO is a generic monograph that treats each of the nearly 850 genera in the family in a detailed and comprehensive way.

The Orchid Team at Kew is composed of researchers in:

  • Living Collections
  • Herbarium
  • Jodrell Laboratory (now including the Conservation Biotechnology Unit)
  • Seed Conservation Department (located in the MSB at Wakehurst)

We are active in:

  • Collections (type images/databases, livings collections, DNA Bank and seeds)
  • Baseline Plant Diversity Research (floras, monographs and Genera Orchidacearum)
  • Comparative Plant Biology (molecular phylogenetic studies, seed biology, anatomy, genomics, floral development and other evolutionary studies)
  • Conservation and Environmental Monitoring (conservation genetics, recovery programme development, CITES checklists and the IUCN/Species Survival Commission)