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The more we know, the more we know how little we know. This observation is entirely applicable to our knowledge of Malesian orchids.
Yes, we do know a lot; thousands of species have already been described. And yet, how many of those do we know really well? Numerous Malesian orchids are only recorded from a handful of specimens, often collected decades ago. Of most species we don’t know the pollinators. In quite a few cases all we have is a sketchy description in Latin, the type material being lost. Our knowledge of the variability and geographical distribution of the majority of the species is still woefully inadequate. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the extent of our ignorance is the seemingly endless stream of new species turning up, even in relatively well-studied areas.
The more we know, the more we know how little we know. This observation is entirely applicable to our knowledge of Malesian orchids. Yes, we do know a lot; thousands of species have already been described. And yet, how many of those do we know really well? Numerous Malesian orchids are only recorded from a handful of specimens, often collected decades ago. Of most species we don’t know the pollinators. In quite a few cases all we have is a sketchy description in Latin, the type material being lost. Our knowledge of the variability and geographical distribution of the majority of the species is still woefully inadequate. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the extent of our ignorance is the seemingly endless stream of new species turning up, even in relatively well-studied areas.
Most parts of Peninsular Malaysia are relatively accessible, and yet in the genus Bulbophyllum alone five undescribed species have been discovered there recently. These are here named and described by Peter O’Byrne and Ong Poh Teck. In this article, O’Byrne also provides some field notes on six other Bulbophyllum species, sharing the thrill of discovery with his readers.
From Borneo comes the attractive, new Dendrobium tanjiewhoei, named in honour of Tan Jiew Hoe, a Singapore plantsman and businessman who has sponsored many natural history publications, including several on orchids. Described by Jeffrey Wood and Datuk Chan Chew Lun, this new species will undoubtedly find its way into the great book on Dendrobium of Borneo which Wood is currently finalising.
New records (species never recorded before from a given area) are another symptom of our knowledge deficiency. Long after all species have been described (which will not happen in our lifetime), new records will keep turning up. Jeffrey Wood and Destario Metusala report on the discovery in southern Borneo of Dendrobium platycaulon, previously only known from the Philippines. They note that the flowers of the Borneo form are more colourful than the Philippine form. This is what we often see: with a wider geographical range comes a wider range of variation.
A very large number of new species are still to be expected from the eastern parts of Malesia, especially Sulawesi, Maluku and New Guinea. These islands are to this day very much under-explored botanically. In his article in this volume, Paul Ormerod estimates that 300–500 orchid species from New Guinea still await description. To discover many of them it is not even necessary to make expensive and difficult expeditions to this island, so tantalizing in many ways. Collectors like Len Brass (1900–1971) and Cedric Erroll Carr (1892–1936; see Corner, 2013) have left a huge legacy of dried specimens that is still incompletely studied and continually yields new species. Ormerod has already described many of these and continues to do so in his latest article here.
For a taxonomist it is sometimes easier to have only a little material than a lot of material. The more material you have, the greater the range of variation that is represented. The greater the range of variation, the more difficult it can be to distinguish closely related taxa. Among Asian orchids there is perhaps no better example of this kind of conundrum than the very common and widespread species Arundina graminifolia. In some places it is one of the closest things to a roadside weed in the orchid family (as is Spathoglottis plicata). This highly variable species has a large number of synonyms, evidence of failed attempts to split it up into more narrowly circumscribed entities. Pedersen and Schuiteman make yet another attempt, by recognising the ecologically and morphologically distinctive rheophytic form as a separate subspecies. It will almost certainly not be the final word on Arundina classification.
The attractive genus Paraphalaenopsis ranks with Paphiopedilum among the genera most endangered by commercial collecting in Malesia. All four species are highly sought after and are now undoubtedly very rare in the wild. They are only known from Borneo (but so far not from Sarawak or Brunei), where they are apparently confined to riverine habitats in lowland rainforest (see pp. 83–99 this volume). One of the species, P. laycockii, is not even recorded from any particular locality, as all the wild-collected plants of this species have so far been brought in by commercial collectors who have kept the precise origin of the species secret. It would be a worthwhile project to study these charismatic orchids in the wild and to attempt to reintroduce them where they have disappeared through over-collecting.
Remaining in Borneo, Phillip Cribb reviews our surprisingly scant knowledge of the genus Vanilla from this island. All Vanilla species are large climbers which are not rarely encountered in the wild in suitable habitats but often when not in flower. They have very short-lived flowers that make poor herbarium specimens. As a result, the taxonomy of this genus is still unsatisfactory. This article should stimulate orchid enthusiasts to pay more attention to Vanilla in the Malesian region.
The final article in the present volume will look familiar to readers of Volume 12 (2013). Unfortunately, in that volume an incorrect version of the article Flora of Peninsular Malaysia — Cypripedioideae was printed that contained errors. Here we include the proper version of this article, which is the one to be cited in future references. We apologise to the author, Paul K.F. Leong for this oversight.
Many thanks to authors, reviewers, photographers and illustrators for contributing to this volume of the Malesian Orchid Journal.