Bulbophyllum formosum Schltr, photo Wolfgang H. Bandisch
  • By Wolfgang H Bandisch
  • Posted June 14, 2016

Papua New Guinea Orchid Exploration

Tok save: Long Papua Niugini mipela gat planti kain kain okid istap. Wanpela masta Giamani, ol i kolim Rudolf Schlechter, bin kam long hia long taim bepo, olsem 100 krismas I go pas. Nau ol lain bilong ples save ol I kolim 'Leiden University' kam lukim ples bilong me nau bai ol wokim dispela kain wok gen. Ol laik painim olgeta kain kain okid istap long Papua Niugini na bai ol I wokim onepela kain buk long olgeta samtin.

To this day the New Guinea orchid species described by Rudolf Schlechter form the basic reference for any researcher working with New Guinea Orchidaceae. That work was done a hundred years ago!

In 1998 the National Herbarium Netherlands, Leiden University Branch, embarked on a project named 'Flora Malesiana'. The project includes the research of the Orchidaceae of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and Papua New Guinea. As for New Guinea the aim is to incorporate each and every publication of New Guinea orchid species in a series of CD ROMs. To date 2 CD ROMs have been published. The first CD ROM an inventory of all the orchids of entire New Guinea, with descriptions of all 132 genera including keys to identify them. The second CD ROM described 567 species of Dendrobiinae. The third CD ROM (Acanthephippium to Hymenorchis except Dendrobiinae and Bulbophyliinae) is due to be published in early 2004. A total of 6 CD ROMs for the New Guinea Orchidaceae is envisaged.

The New Guinea orchid project is coordinated and implemented by Dr. Ed de Vogel. André Schuiteman does the bulk of the work in getting the collated and collected material published. Prominent orchidists, such as Dr. Philip Cribb, Kew Botanical Gardens and Dr. Wayne K. Harris from Mt. Cootha Botanical Gardens in Brisbane, Australia, participate in the project and form a vital part towards its success. There are many contributors of orchid species images, just to name a few, Peter Jongejan, Jan Meijvogel, Tineke Roelfsema, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh and André Schuiteman. Line drawings from the archives of J.J. Smith and Rudolf Schlechter, as well as from Jaap Vermeulen, Mutsuko Nakajima and Anita Walsmith are included in the CD ROM series. Annemarie van Zaaien helps with translating orchid descriptions from Latin to English. Piet den Hartog scanned the entire collection of J.J. Smith's pencil drawings (over 5,000) as well Rudolf Schlechter's drawings in Fedde Repertorium (some 1,100 drawings). Further details can be obtained from Leiden University.

As descriptions of New Guinea orchid species over the past 150 or more years have been spread over a great number of publications the work to be done is monumental. At times, species have been described that have no type lodged at any herbarium around the world, or species described cannot be verified in the wild. Therefore a significant part of the New Guinea orchid project is field work undertaken over a period of five years to make a 'stock take' of the Orchidaceae, collect specimens, take photos, make drawings, verify descriptions, establish reliable distribution maps and do molecular work to try to identify the origins and relationships of New Guinea orchid genera and species in a modern way.

In 2000 the National Herbarium Netherlands, Leiden University Branch, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Capital Botanical Gardens, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, to cooperate with this project. Getting research permits for the Leiden scientists to come out to Papua New Guinea has been a mind boggling exercise but eventually this was achieved and the first orchid research expeditions were undertaken in December 2002 and January 2003. During that time 958 collections of orchid species were done, comprising of some 4-500 species, quite a few of them, mainly Bulbophyllums, new to science.

In August and September 2003 a second field expedition was made, headed by Dr. Ed de Vogel (Conservator of Orchids and Senior Researcher in Orchidaceae) and accompanied by Art Vogel (General Manager of the greenhouses where the live collections at Leiden University are kept), Dr. Barbara Gravendeel (Molecular Researcher at Leiden University) and Wolfgang Bandisch (General Manager of the National Capital Botanical Gardens, Port Moresby).

For this second expedition it was decided to explore the Orchidaceae of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. As a start a short trip was made by Dr. Ed de Vogel and Art Vogel to the Tufi fjords in the Oro Province, followed by an expedition to Kokoda a settlement located along the route of the famous WWII Kokoda Trail. Concurrently Dr. Wayne K. Harris did field work in the Mt. Bosavi region in the Southern Highlands and was able to contribute some 300 collections.

Arrival at Mt. Hagen, from left to right: Art Vogel, Dr. Barbara Gravendeel, Dr. Ed de Vogel, photo by Wolfgang H. Bandisch

On September 5, 2003 we boarded an Air Niugini plane in Port Moresby to fly to Mt Hagen, capital of the Western Highlands Province, where we hired a 4WD vehicle to drive to our destination Minj, located in the Wahgi Valley. The writer had arranged with people he knows for permission from the landowners to explore and collect orchid species in their area. Getting to Minj by early afternoon the rest of the day was taken up with discussions with landowner representatives who were eager to learn about the project and wanted to know as to whether the orchid resources in their mountains would be sufficient to start an orchid farm on a commercial basis.

Author Wolfgang H. Bandisch with male Raggiana Bird of Paradise

Minj is the centre of the Wahgi Valley with coffee being the main crop. The people there have a rich culture determining many facets of their daily lives. Their colourful traditional dresses, now only shown on very rare occasions make use of many natural resources of the flora and fauna found in the jungles covering the mountains that fringe the valley. The amazing head dresses are made up of a variety of components such as feathers of the Vulturine Parrot, stuffed lorikeets, several species of Birds of Paradise (Raggiana, Lesser and Princess Stephanie), body parts such as entire wings of birds of prey, feathers of the Cassowary and the split dried pseudobulbs of a Dendrobium species, section Grastidium.

Image showing the use of Cassowary and Vulturine Parrot feathers as well as fibres of a Dendrobium species Sect. Grastidium, during a traditional ceremony called 'Tainim hed' (Turning Head) during which a girl can select a man

Diplocaulobium species appear to play a significant role in their lives. The kunai grass roof of a typical village house is adorned with tufts of Diplocaulobium phalangium Schltr. It is believed that the tufts of Diplocaulobium phalangium Schltr. provide some kind of spiritual protection for the house and its owners. The local name for this species is 'Kisvetang'. During our expedition we discovered that this species flowers throughout the valley on the very same day at different locations and elevations. There is some discussion that Diplocaulobium flowering is induced by changes in the weather, ambient temperature or atmospheric pressure. There are several other species of Diplocaulobium in the area, however none of those were observed in flower given that the above reasoning for flowering is supposed to be applicable to the genus.

The dried seed capsules of Dendrobium alaticaulinum are reported to be an effective insecticide. Their most prominent use is to drive cockroaches away.

Another interesting purpose is the use of the dried seed capsules of Dendrobium armeniacum to attract women and/or men, depending on who is wearing it around the neck, as a kind of pheromone. We were able to smell the seed capsule of that species.

It had a very strong aromatic flavour that none of us had ever experienced before. The person showing us this capsule could not tell as to whether the capsule had undergone any treatment to achieve this strong aroma, as done with the seed capsules of the commercial Vanilla species for instance.

Fibres of a Dendrobium species Sect. Grastidium are used for head dresses at tradi-tional ceremonies, photo by Wolfgang H. Bandisch

The dried Dendrobium pseudobulbs of a section Grastidium species is used in the head dress for customary ceremonies, to weave armbands and other adornments.

Wasine & Mount Ondsunakomung

We are being welcomed at Pukamil and Wasine villages, photo by Wolfgang H. Bandisch

Our field work began the next day. It was a beautiful day with bright sunshine and all the mountain peaks surrounding the valley were clearly visible. It was a short drive from the lodge to Pukamil village and on to Wasine village, where the track ended. We disembarked and were most cordially welcomed by the villagers. After lots of handshaking and explaining the purpose of our visit we started our walk through the gardens and coffee plantations along the Wasine River to climb Mount Ondsunakomung (around 2,400 m). After a while we had to cross the river and decided to split up into two groups, Dr. Ed de Vogel's group following the river upstream and our group comprising of Dr. Barbara Gravendeel, Art Vogel and the writer proceeded to climb the mountain. Both groups were accompanied by large numbers of enthusiastic villagers eager to see what we were doing, wanting to learn the species names and obviously having great fun at doing that.

One of the several creeks and rivers we have to cross during our ascent to Mt. Ondsunakomung, photo by Wolfgang H. Bandisch Bulbophyllums in section Fruticicola, photo by Ed de Vogel

Once out of the village gardens and coffee plantations it did not take long to find the first orchids. We found a large range of genera from Acanthephippium, Agrostophyllum, Appendicula, Bulbophyllum, Cadetia, Coelogyne, Dendrobium forbesii and Dendrobium finisterreae, Malaxis, Oberonia, several more species in Dendrobium section Grastidium and many species in the genus Glomera, two species of Epiblastus and well as quite a variety of Bulbophyllums in section Fruticicola, some of them new to science. A wonderful find was Bulbophyllum cruttwellii J.J. Vermeulen and Bulbophyllum formosum Schltr. The climb got steeper and steeper, often we were on our hands and knees and the sure footed villager proofed to be of great value to help us over the most difficult parts of the climb. The daily rains make the hunting paths that we were following quite slippery. Our accompanying villagers soon learnt that there were many more orchids in their jungles that they themselves had recognized as orchids. Fanning out left and right of the tracks our collecting bags were soon filled. Eventually we climbed to a height of over 2,000 m but decided to head back from there as the climb was getting extremely steep and we certainly felt the elevation, shortness of breath and generally being unfit for such a steep climb on our first day. The descent was probably worse than the climb. We headed straight down the mountain in a sea of kunai grass, a local grass variety that can grow well over a man's height. The grass blades are razor sharp and holding on to them to brace one selves can lead quickly to bleeding hands.

We were quite happy to get back to the fringes of the village gardens. Walking back along the Wasine river someone in our party discovered a prize specimen of a Bulbophyllum, possibly in section Macrouris. The hundreds of white flowers covering this plant made it the find of the day.

Nearby, and by chance we discovered the wonderful cluster flowered orange Glomera aurea.

Back at the village we found Dr. Ed de Vogel's party had also just returned. Looking around the orchids that the villagers had placed around their houses we found a couple of nice specimens of Dendrobium crispilinguum P.J. Cribb. Well that was it for the day. We headed back to the lodge and started with the administration of our finds. Sorting the plants by genus, trying to identify those that could be identified (most plants were not in flower thus making identification impossible), cleaning the plants, labelling them with Leiden University numbers and entering each and every plant in the computer database was many hours work after an already tiring day.

After dinner and a couple of well earned drinks we had more discussions with the villagers and eventually fell dead tired in our beds.

The list of genera and species located on Mount Ondsunakomung comprised of:

Acanthephippium, Agrostophyllum, Bulbophyllum formosum and species in Sections Fruticicola, Lepanthante, Hyalosema, Macrouris, Pelma, Cadetia - several species, Ceratostylis, Dendrobium Sections Grastidium, Latouria, Oxystophyllum, Pedilonum, Spathulata, Dendrobium caliculimentum, Dendrobium crispilinguum, Dendrochilum longifolium, Diplocaulobium - many species, Epiblastus, Eria, Glomera aurea - many species, Liparis, Malaxis, Mediocalcar, Oberonia, Phreatia, Taeniophyllum, Thelasis

Check out part 2 of the Papua New Guinea Orchid Exploration article, where we vist Korubun Creek and Jimy Valley road ...