SA Orchids: History

Early exploration

Eulophia illustrated by Harry BolusThe exploration of the orchids of southern Africa started in the late 17th and the 18th century when large numbers of dry plant specimens were collected in South Africa and sent to European herbaria to be studied there, particularly to Holland, Germany, Britain and Sweden. Well known collectors of the time were Thunberg, Burchell, Ecklon, Drège and Zeyher. Their collections were made mainly in the former Cape Province, but also as far afield as Durban (KwaZulu-Natal). Famous names among the European botanists who worked on the southern African material are Burman, Bergius, Linnaeus, Thunberg, Swartz and Sonder. They described numerous South African species.

Initial cataloging and classifying

The Englishman John Lindley, who is sometimes called the 'father of orchidology' incorporated this South African material in his famous book The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants, which came out between 1830 and 1840. Later Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach became one of the foremost orchidologists of the world. He described many new species, among them many southern African ones. After Reichenbach, Fritz Kraenzlin, another German botanist, started the study of southern African orchids. Kraenzlin also described many new orchids in our region, and he also revised some of the genera. His book Orchidacearum Genera et Species was never finished, but the volume containing the Habenaria, Disa, and Disperis groups (very important in our region) was completed in 1901.


A few years later, Flora Capensis (1912-1913), containing brief descriptions of all South African plants, was published. Its orchid account was written by Robert Allan Rolfe, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, London. It was the first complete treatment of the southern African orchids.

An important phase in southern African orchidology had started in 1891 when the young German botanist Rudolf Schlechter arrived in Cape Town. Between 1893 and 1897 Schlechter collected extensively in various parts of South Africa, and between 1897 and 1898 he was also able to explore Mozambique. Schlechter later also travelled extensively in other parts of the world and made important contributions to the study of the orchid floras of several South American countries, Madagascar, the Mascarene islands, New Guinea, and several Indonesian and Pacific Ocean islands. At the time Schlechter's field knowledge of the orchids was indeed unrivalled. He described numerous new species, many among these from South Africa. His most important contributions were revisions of the Disperideae (1898), the genus Holothrix (1898-1899), the Diseae (1901), the angraecoid orchids (1918), and Schizochilus and Brachycorythis (1921). Schlechter also produced a classification of the entire orchid family which was published in 1926 after his death.

Harry Bolus and his contribution

Harry BolusThe first South African-based orchidologist was Harry Bolus of Cape Town. He published complete treatments of the southern African orchids: The Orchids of the Cape Peninsula in 1888, soon followed by the three-volume work Icones Orchidearum Austro-Africanorum Extratropicarum (1893-1896, 1911, 1913). All of these are illustrated by magnificent colour paintings. (See illustration above).

Bolus described many new orchids in South Africa, and also built up the Bolus Herbarium and its associated library.


A recent resurgence of interest

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in South African orchids. Stephan Vogel from Germany produced a morphological analysis of the complicated flowers of Diseae, based on material which he collected during a fieldtrip to South Africa.

Prof. Edmund Andre Schelpe of the Bolus Herbarium at the University of Cape Town worked on various aspects of southern African orchids. An introduction to the South African orchids, which he wrote in 1966, made our indigenous South African orchids known to the interested layperson. Schelpe also produced treatments of southern African epiphytic orchids (1961, 1962), and in 1976 checklists of the orchids of Mozambique and Angola.

In 1972, Errol Harrison published a field guide Epiphytic orchids of southern Africa, which was followed a few years later by Southern African epiphytic orchids by John S. Ball.

There have also been several studies of terrestrial orchids. Hans Peter Linder at the University of Cape Town revised Schizochilus, Brownleea and all genera of Disinae in 1980 and 1981. Revisions of the southern African species of Eulophia and Satyrium were produced by Anthony V. Hall (in 1965 and 1982, respectively). In 1982 Wild orchids of southern Africa was published by Joyce Stewart, H. Peter Linder, Edmund A. Schelpe and Anthony V. Hall which incorporated the results of these revisions. Between 1988 and 1995 detailed morphological and morphological-ontogenetic studies on southern African Orchideae and Diseae were undertaken by Hubert Kurzweil, as were pollination studies by Steve D. Johnson and Kim E. Steiner. The results of both were incorporated in phylogenetic analyses which were published jointly with P. Linder.

All of the recently obtained information was incorporated in a collaborative effort to produce a modern and well-illustrated orchid flora which was published as Orchids of southern Africa in 1999. It was written mainly by P. Linder and H. Kurzweil, but contains contributions from A.V. Hall, C. Hilton-Taylor, K. Immelman, S. Johnson, J. Manning, the late E.A. Schelpe, K.E. Steiner, L. Vogelpoel and K.H.K. Wodrich. The book contains detailed descriptions of all 466 orchid species known at the time from our region, together with black and white line drawings, 500 colour photos and distribution maps of most species.


Description: Hubert Kurzweil
October 2000
(Updated by Clare Archer, August 2010)

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