Brief History of Orchid Collection and Research in New Guinea
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century a number of botanists described a few species of orchids from random collections made in New Guinea. Where the term ‘New Guinea’ is used without any qualification it refers only to the main island. Some Malayan and Indonesian (including West Irian) orchids described during this period have since been found to occur in Papua New Guinea, as have also a few Australian species. (The Western Province alone shares some 25 species of orchids with Cape York Peninsula. The actual number of ‘Australian” orchids occurring in PNG will exceed this number.)
The dominating figure in the history of orchidology in north-eastern New Guinea is Rudolf Schlechter. This collector and taxonomist paid two lengthy visits to New Guinea, one in 1901-2 and the other in 1907-8 and during these expeditions he visited New Ireland and New Britain. On the mainland he collected in the vicinity of Aitape, ascending the Torricelli Range. He then spent over a year around and inland from Astrolabe Bay, crossing the western end of the Finisterre Range to the Ramu River. By his report (but there seems to be some doubt about this), he ascended the Bismarck Range to an altitude of 6,000 feet. Schlechter also collected in the Finschhafen-Sattelberg area and in the Waria River valley, ascending some of the nearby mountains. He also travelled 175 miles up the Sepik River by boat, but the nature of this country, extensive tracts of wild sugar-cane lining both sides of the river and other difficulties, allowed him practically no opportunities for plant collecting. He did not collect in the area we now know as the Highlands.
As an outcome of his first expedition he described numerous species in 1905; his second expedition enabled him to describe many more species in his monumental work, Die Orchidaceen von Deutsch Neuguinea. In 1919 he described 93 new species collected mainly by A. Kempf in the Waria River area, by A. Kempter inland from the general area of Vanimo, and by E. Keyser on the Saruwaged Range. In 1921, he described 30 more species again collected mainly by Kempf from the Waria River area and by E. Werner on the Finisterre Range; a further 126 species collected by C. Ledermann and L. Schultze in the Sepik District were described in 1923.
There has been little taxonomic work done on orchids of Papua New Guinea during the past four decades. R.S. Rogers (1925, 1930) described a few species collected by C.E. Lane-Poole; R.L. Turner, R.S.Rogers and C.T. White, a few species collected by White; R. Mansfeld (1929, 1930) species collected by E. Keyser; L.O. Williams (1946, 1957) species collected by L. J. Brass and M.S. Clemens; G. Schoser and J.A. Fowlie described a single species, as did also R. Schodde. During the period after Schlechter’s journeys there were a number of collecting expeditions organized by many minor collectors. None seem to have specialized in orchids, but a great number of orchid specimens have accumulated as a result of their efforts. Since many of these specimens have only been identified to genetic level, much work awaits a competent taxonomist with the time and opportunity to deal with this material.
The taxonomic work of Schlechter on the orchids of the then German New Guinea was roughly paralleled in time and number of species by J.J. Smith (1909-1930) for the orchids of the then Dutch New Guinea. However, unlike Schlechter, Smith himself did not collect in West Irian, but described the species collected by others that he considered were new. Further investigation will probably show that many species are distributed over the whole of New Guinea and thus there will have been some duplication in nomenclature.
In the late 1980’s Peter O’Byrne, out of frustration for not being able to locate any orchid books that can be used as a field guide, decided to do some collecting and research on the orchids of Papua New Guinea. Realizing very soon that the subject is far too extensive to be covered in a life time he soon limited himself to the study of the lowland orchids of Papua New Guinea and eventually pulbished his research in a book by the same name.
In a more recent development the National Herbarium of the Netherlands has undertaken, and at the time of writing is still in the process, to publish a series of CD ROMs that will eventually contain each and every New Guinea orchid species ever published. To date two CD ROMs have been produced and three more are being worked on.
In cooperation with the National Capital Botanical Gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, field trips are being udnertaken to endeavour to collect each and every species as well. The first field trip by Dr. Ed de Vogel and Art Vogel to Papua New Guinea was done in December 2002 for a period of four weeks. During that time they visited Woitape, Tapini, Lae, Mumeng, Salamaua and Lababia together with staff from the National Capital Botanical Gardens. The first trip can be considered a huge success with a collection of 958 different species, many of them new. Once this project is completed in 2005 it can safely be assumed that the present understanding and knowledge of the orchids of Papua New Guinea will be greatly enhanced and show that the total number of orchid species endemic to this country will exceed the so far assumed number of some 3,000 species.