Orchid Dendrobium cuthbertsonii

New Guinea, an orchid paradise

The huge and, in many ways, mysterious island of New Guinea. Some of the most beautiful creatures in the world, most notably birds-of-paradise and birdwing butterflies, inhabit the dense ense forests that still cover large tracts of the plains and the rugged mountain ranges. New Guinea also harbours a tremendous collection of orchids, certainly in excess of 2000 species. They can be found almost anywhere, from the hot mangrove swamps and beach forests to the chilly grasslands above the timberline on the highest mountains (click on the icon labelled Habitats for an illustrated review of the main orchid habitats). In the misty upland forests their abundance and diversity can be staggering.

Even today our knowledge of most of these orchids is very poor. On the one hand most genera have never been revised. When this will be done many synonyms will undoubtedly come to light. On the other hand it is equally certain that a great number, probably hundreds, of species still await discovery, or at least await description in case they are lying unrecognised in some herbarium. It is therefore impossible at this stage to give an accurate estimate of the number of species occurring in New Guinea. A safe guess would be somewhere between 2200 and 2800 species, or to put it differently: ten to thirteen percent of the world's orchids are to be found in New Guinea. Only some areas in the Andes are probably richer in orchid species than New Guinea.

Those who want to become thoroughly acquainted with New Guinea orchids should study the works of Rudolf Schlechter, (1872-1925), J.J. Smith (1867-1947), and other botanists. Valuable though these works are, they do not contain coloured illustrations and they consist largely of species-descriptions in Latin. Besides, they can only be found in very few unusually well-stocked libraries. A modern overview, which provides the means to identify at least all the genera known to occur in New Guinea, is long overdue.

Dendrobium nindii found at Lake Kutubu, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New GuineaThe Orchidaceae of New Guinea represents the largest percentage of all known orchid species in the world with an estimated 3,000 species out of a total of some 30,000 world-wide. Research of the Orchidaceae of New Guinea since Rudolf Schlechter has been sporadic at best and the Orchidaceae of New Guinea is much less researched and understood than those of SE Asia or Central and South America.

The monumental work done by Rudolf Schlechter to this day provides the basis of all knowledge of the Orchidaceae of New Guinea and while other eminent authors have addressed individual genera and/or sections in a genus there is no complete account of all genera represented in New Guinea.

Dendrobium magistratus from Simbu Province, Papua New GuineaThe purpose of this Web site is to introduce you to all the orchid genera found on the island of New Guinea, both the eastern part, the Independent State of Papua New Guinea and the western part known as Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia.

The success of the Orchidaceae within New Guinea and its adjacent islands is the result of adaptation. Although it shares species from adjacent regions, its wide range of diverse habitats has resulted in members of the family becoming specialised so that the country has become richly endowed with endemic orchids, many of which are horticulturally attractive or are of considerable botanical interest. Due to this the New Guinea orchids have been extensively exploited up to the present, but with little or no benefit to the people of the country.

Epiblastus basilis found in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New GuineaA viable orchid industry has yet to be established in Papua New Guinea and orchid conservation is still in an unsatisfactory state in spite of efforts since 1990 to enforce the ban on the removal of adult plants from the country. Orchid research until now has been limited to taxonomic research done by visitors, some long-term residents and by a few private growers.

The need to establish an orchid industry and a flora conservation program is not being addressed due to lack of funds and a general apathy by the Papua New Guinea Government to recognise the importance of minor forest products. Sporadic efforts have been made by Government organisations such as the Forest Research Institute (FRI) but without sincere determination and actual allocation of funds and manpower the future of orchid conservation in Papua New Guinea looks grim indeed.

Dendrobium discolor, a common lowland speciesOrchids in Papua New Guinea are categorised as a minor forest product and they are considered a renewable resource, which can and should be utilised. However, New Guinea orchids have been collected by botanists and orchid collectors for more than a century and in spite of this very little is known about the conservation needs of most of the genera and species. This is due to inadequate information on their distribution, habitats and biology.

If the native orchids are to be utilised commercially then there is a need for a sound resource management policy for the orchids and other flora. Further there is an urgent need to determine the conservation needs of the species in the country and to identify and protect areas of special conservation significance.

Phalaenopsis amabilis, found in lowland forestsAny attempt at conserving native orchid populations must take into account the critical factors that affect their development. Major threats to New Guinea orchids come from two main sources, the destruction of habitat and over-collection of certain species. Currently there have been reports that adult orchid plants are still leaving the country in spite of the ban to export native orchids.

As most of the land in Papua New Guinea has traditional landowners, the people must play a key role in conservation in the country. Because of this some conservation objectives may be achieved through economic incentives. Industries, based on the commercial utilisation of native flora and eco-tourism, may provide those incentives.

Research and development and public awareness and cooperation are required before these can be successfully established. Some activities have already started in that direction.

An orchid conservation project was proposed in the late 1980's to promote the protection of Papua New Guinea's floral diversity by establishing a gene pool for endangered species of orchids and other flora. It was intended to establish laboratory facilities for research support for the project and for the collection, storage and artificial propagation of plants. The project was to develop an export market for propagated plant species, conforming with CITES regulations, and it would have promoted and assisted the development of village based horticultural farms to grow orchids and other plants for the production of cut flowers and seed on a commercial basis. Regrettably this project eventually got lost in the bureaucratic quagmire.

To this very day (2016) management of minor forest products is not promoted by the Government of Papua New Guinea. Smuggling of orchids continues to some extend. The Office of Environment and Conservation does not have any staff that understands and/or knows anything about the orchids of the country.