Marios

Marios Giannakoulias

An Integrated Taxonomic and Cultivation Database for Orchids

About the author

I was born in Greece and, after studying for my botany degree at Aberystwyth University, Wales, I researched and co-authored a book about native Greek orchids, only to find that there is much confusion over what exactly constitutes a species (e.g. species of Ophrys). For the last 4 years, I have attempted to address this issue, while working as taxonomic advisor for the Greek Orchid Society (GOS), and have sought to make accurate, well researched information widely available to orchid collectors and growers. Currently,  I am updating the cultivated plant section of the database (to include protologues and types, and all currently available information on each taxon), as well as the native Greek orchid flora database, which, when complete, will allow scientific researchers and horticulturalists to access geographical and seasonal data, as well as other information, presented in a user-friendly format. See http://www.greekorchidsociety.org/gallery/

The Database

Until recently, researchers who needed to check the scientific names of plants online, and in particular, orchids, had two useful resources at their disposal, namely Tropicos, the scientific name database of the Missouri Botanical Garden (the first to attempt an online database of plant names and synonyms, together with bibliographic references) and the Kew Monocot Checklist. The former database was later linked to the digital library of the Missouri Botanical Garden (Botanicus.org) and forms the basis of many current projects (eMonocot, world checklist of selected families, IPNI, etc.) Like the Kew Monocot Checklist, it is available to the public and provides a wealth of biological information – in short, allowing public access to the resources of a vast botanical library.

Unfortunately these databases do not provide horticultural information. It was felt, however, that such data would be useful to orchid growers and we set about gathering and compiling relevant information, including habitat and elevation details, for a new database.

While attempting to identify and to place on this database those plants that flowered in the collections of members of the Greek Orchid Society (GOS), it became clear that many books dealing with orchids were by now obsolete. Taxonomy had changed, and furthermore, previous to the advent of the world-wide web, most botanists had no easy access to type specimens (a dried, pressed, herbarium specimen, spirit-preserved material, an illustration or even a photograph of a newly-discovered taxon) or to their protologues (written descriptions of these type specimens). With no easily accessible way of comparing specimens, taxonomic errors were common, especially when so many species closely resembled each other. In order to address this problem, the growing conditions of native Greek species were documented, thereby providing more accurate and more freely available information that could be used for their successful culture. Although this section has already been up-loaded, it is not yet complete, unlike the cultivated species section (Acianthera to Zygopetalum) which is ready for use. All entries in the database were then, in turn, linked to the correct protologues and type specimens (where available),  making it easier to check for conflicting information and inaccuracies. This should facilitate specimen identification, minimize nomenclatural confusion and, by linking plants to names, descriptions of the original specimens and their ecology, simplify retrieval of information and enable better horticultural practices.

In this modern age, taxonomists have often been blamed for historical taxonomic errors or unnecessary changes to nomenclature. However, in reality, they had little information with which to work, since, for example, most of the original descriptions made by Reichenbach filius or John Lindley comprised just five lines of text. This, in turn, determined how we cultivated a given species.  For example, the very similar Asian species Dendrobium lindleyi and Dendrobium jenkinsii, were once considered conspecific.  However, since they differ in their habitats and ecology, both species cannot be cultivated under identical conditions.  Likewise, the following similar pairs of species cannot be grown under the same conditions: Cattleya pumila (syn. Laelia pumila) and C. bicalhoi (syn. Laelia praestans), Dendrobium guilbertii and D. densiflorum, etc. Furthermore, cultivation in Northern Europe often differs considerably from that in Southern Europe – for example, it is almost impossible to grow Miltoniopsis in Greece. An integrated database of this kind, would enable orchid growers (many of whom spend a considerable amount of their earnings on orchid plants annually) to grow those plants in their care more successfully. All the information required would be just one click away. Unfortunately, the database cannot protect us from misinformation supplied by less knowledgeable plant suppliers and nurseries.

In order to streamline botanical information, help us make informed horticultural decisions and avoid nomenclatural confusion, despite the plethora of synonyms used for the same species, genera are listed according to Genera Orchidacearum, and an extensive list of synonyms is provided for each species.  As a result, the new circumscription of Oncidium (which currently includes plants formerly assigned to Odontoglossum, Cochlioda and Sigmatostalix, amongst others) makes it easy to decide how they should be grown:  they all occur at high altitudes in wet montane forests, and are intolerant of excessive dry heat.

Furthermore, the database has an easy search function, allowing the user to search all synonyms currently stored by any fraction of a name exceeding three letters. For example, when searching for Sedirea japonica, one needs only insert the letters ‘japon’,  and all entries containing that sequence of letters will appear. Furthermore, in order to reduce confusion resulting from the inaccurate use of ‘trade names’, such names are cross-referenced and suffixed [HORT.] (e.g Oncidium ornithorhynchum is a rarely cutivated yellow-flowered species, whereas plants grown by most nurseries under that name are in fact pink-flowered Oncidium sotoanum. In this case, the name Oncidium ornithorhynchum [HORT.] is placed under synonymy with Oncidium sotoanum).

There are of course limitations. For example, the plants included in the database, to date, represent only those taxa that members of the GOS forum have succeeded in flowering, but doubtless, this will be addressed in due course.

My hope is that in future, you will all be able to enjoy viewing a webpage that brings together a publication reference from the mid-19th century, a specimen from the Harvard Herbarium and a drawing of the same specimen from the Vienna Herbarium, together with accurate cultivation information, in just one click.

As well as this new database, there will also be another that contains photographs of the Greek orchid flora, kindly provided by members of the GOS. At present, it is still largely ‘a work in progress’, but hopefully, soon, it will be up and running!

I hope that you enjoy it, but above all, that you will find it useful in improving the cultivation of your orchids!