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Darwin’s Orchids

Then and Now

For biologists, 2009 was an epochal year: the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of a book now known simply as The Origin of Species. But for many botanists, Darwin’s true legacy starts with the 1862 publication of another volume: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, or Fertilisation of Orchids. This slim but detailed book with the improbably long title was the first in a series of plant studies by Darwin that continues to serve as a global exemplar in the field of evolutionary botany. In Darwin’s Orchids, an international group of orchid biologists unites to celebrate and explore the continuum that stretches from Darwin’s groundbreaking orchid research to that of today.

Mirroring the structure of Fertilisation of Orchids, Darwin’s Orchids investigates flowers from Darwin’s home in England, through the southern hemisphere, and on to North America and China as it seeks to address a set of questions first put forward by Darwin himself: What pollinates this particular type of orchid? How does its pollination mechanism work? Will an orchid self-pollinate or is an insect or other animal vector required? And how has this orchid’s lineage changed over time? Diverse in their colors, forms, aromas, and pollination schemes, orchids have long been considered ideal models for the study of plant evolution and conservation. Looking to the past, present, and future of botany, Darwin’s Orchids will be a vital addition to this tradition.

384 pages | 16 color plates, 33 halftones, 14 line drawings, 14 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Botany, Conservation, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History


“Darwin’s Orchids is full of surprises: plants of the wonderfully named Dracula genus are pollinated by fungus gnats, attracted by a blob of tissue that looks and smells like the fungus on which they normally lay eggs; Orchis pauciflora puffs out the pheromones that bumblebee queens use to mark males, while Cryptostylis orchids mimic female wasps, transferring pollen when male wasps attempt to copulate with them. Many orchids have no nectar, effectively being just bigger and brighter versions of flowers, like violets, that do. There is also plenty about Darwin: the young explorer as well as the somewhat older man, fussing over specimens in his greenhouse. His orchid work and knowledge are given historical context, while those responsible, for our progress in understanding since then, like Swedish entomologist Bertil Kullenberg, also receive deserved attention. This book will delight all those who have ever paused in a garden centre and, gazing at some extraordinary orchid, wondered, ‘Just what was evolution thinking?’ Well, now, to some degree, we seem to know. Darwin would surely have been amazed by all the progress outlined here, and fascinated by such a wealth of new knowledge.”

Adrian Barnett | New Scientist

“In the realm of plant evolutionary biology, the 1862 publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects marked the founding of a new subdiscipline focused on the evolution of natural systems for orchid pollination. Darwin’s Orchids, edited by faculty members at Saint Louis University and the Missouri Botanical Garden, largely follows the order of Darwin’s discussion but brings the topic up to date with the proceedings of two symposia held in Darwin’s honor at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011. With nearly two dozen color photographs, meticulous indexing, and a helpful summary by the editors, this book opens a window onto the study of orchid ecology and evolution that will intrigue historians of science, Darwin fans, and orchid lovers everywhere.”

Sandra Ackerman | American Scientist

“As . . . lab-oriented studies progress, the field-oriented research such as the studies in this volume will help to frame the truly interesting questions to be asked. This is a wonderful volume to have in your lab or library to hook a new generation of students on orchid biology.”

W. Mark Whitten, Florida Museum of Natural History | Ecology

“Handsomely produced.”

Michael J. Hutchings, University of Sussex, UK | Trends in Ecology & Evolution

“We gain an enhanced sense of how much Darwin’s questions surrounding the “contrivances” he recognized in orchids made them splendid examples for the exploration of adaptation and for the provocative suggestion that a coevolutionary process had taken place between animal pollinators and their preferred orchids. These questions, as the editors point out, continue to dominate the thinking of contemporary biologists, many of whom rely on a staggering diversity of techniques to provide answers, some of which surprise the evolutionary biologist. . . . This is a very valuable collection of papers, a good starting point for anyone with a serious interest in Darwin’s work on orchids, that gives the historian of science a renewed appreciation of the importance of orchids in Darwin’s life and work and how much his thinking continues to inform their study today.”

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, University of Florida | Isis

“A serious study, well written, of the pollination, evolution and ecology of orchids in various parts of the world.”


“Reading Darwin’s Orchids is like enjoying a box of See’s chocolates. A collection of twelve essays by luminaries in various fields, the book is a delicious treat no matter what chapter you choose or where you dig in. Every essay on the advances in pollination knowledge since Darwin’s day is thought-provoking and well-written and a delight to read and ponder.”

Orchid Digest

"Copiously illustrated, Darwin's Orchids includes an excellent overview of his orchid research and the origin and impact of the two editions. Subsequent chapters derive mainly from two symposia held in Melbourne in 2011. Paralleling chapters in Darwin's 1877 edition, this work presents fascinating 'then and now' stories. It also includes chapters on Thelymitra, briefly treated by Darwin, and on euglossine bee pollination, a phenomenon unknown to him, along with two concluding chapters discussing pollinator perception of floral color and impacts of changing climate on orchid flowering times. . . . Recommended."

R. Schmid, University of California, Berkeley | Choice

“Fascinating. . . . As both a fan of orchids and of Darwin I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of this book and cannot recommend it strongly enough for all orchid biologists, or indeed anyone with an interest in science.”

Alan Cann, University of Leicester, UK | Annals of Botany Blog: News and Views on Plant Science and Ecology

“An excellent anthology that not only imparts information and knowledge, but also challenges the mind and stimulates the imagination.”

Joseph Arditti, University of California, Irvine | Plant Science Bulletin

“Definitely a book not only for the exacting orchid enthusiast, but for evolutionary biologists and Darwinists. . . . This scientific tome into the sex life of orchids will capture the interest of the botanic ecologists and co-evolutionists.”

San Francisco Book Review

“Orchidophiles unite! This extraordinary volume inspires a rethinking about Darwin, orchids, and evolution. And even more, it reminds us not only that truth is stranger than fiction, but also that orchids have the most creative, complex, and convoluted contrivances associated with their sex lives!”

Meg Lowman, Chief of Science and Sustainability, California Academy of Sciences | author of "Life in the Treetops"

“The ideas and themes behind Darwin’s Orchids are quite appropriate and significant. Basing almost every chapter on or with a takeoff from Darwin’s 1862/1877 books really is important. There have been several recent books which cover different aspects of Darwin and his works, including orchids, but this book has the strongest scholarly basis. Using the Darwin books as the foundation is brilliant.”

James L. Seago | State University of New York at Oswego

“A fascinating book. Darwin’s Orchids will be a very valuable addition to the orchidological scientific literature.”

Peter G. Kevan | University of Guelph, Canada

Table of Contents

Peter Bernhardt and Retha Edens-Meier
I.  Darwin Shares His Orchids
1  Darwin’s Orchids (1862, 1877): Origins, Development, and Impact
Peter Bernhardt and Retha Edens-Meier
II.  Darwin’s Orchids of the English and Eurasian Countrysides
2  Darwin on the Pollination of Orchis: What He Taught Us and What We Can Tell Him Today
Giovanni Scopece, Salvatore Cozzolino, and Amots Dafni
Ophrys Pollination: From Darwin to the Present Day
Nicolas J. Vereecken and Ana Francisco
III.  Darwin and His Colleagues: Orchid Evolution in the Southern Hemisphere
4  Pollination of South African Orchids in the Context of Ecological Guilds and Evolutionary Syndromes
Steven D. Johnson
5  Phylogeny of Orchidaceae Tribe Diurideae and Its Implications for the Evolution of Pollination Systems
Peter H. Weston, Andrew J. Perkins, James O. Indsto, and Mark A. Clements
Appendix 5.1: Morphological Character States Used to Construct a Phylogeny of the Diurideae
6  Pollination of Spider Orchids (Caladenia syn. Arachnorchis) by Wasps . . . and Others: A Lingering Post-Darwinian Mystery
Sophie Petit
7  The Sun Orchids (Thelymitra) Then and Now: Large Flowers versus Small Flowers and Their Evolutionary Implications
Retha Edens-Meier and Peter Bernhardt
IV.  Darwin and His Colleagues: Orchid Evolution in the Tropics
8  Pollination Biology and Evolutionary History of Angraecoid Orchids: From Darwin to the Present Day
Claire Micheneau, Jacques Fournel, and Thierry Pailler
9  Orchids and Neotropical Pollinators since Darwin’s Time
David W. Roubik
V.  Extravagant Architecture: The Diandrous Orchids
10  Pollination and Floral Evolution of Slipper Orchids (Subfamily Cypripedioideae)
Retha Edens-Meier, Yi-bo Luo, Robert Pemberton, and Peter Bernhardt
VI.  Overview: The Influence of Color Perception and Climate Change
11  Color and Sexual Deception in Orchids: Progress toward Understanding the Functions and Pollinator Perception of Floral Color
A. C. Gaskett
12  Impacts of Extreme Weather Spells on Flowering Phenology of Wild Orchids in Guangxi, Southwestern China
Hong Liu, Chang-Lin Feng, Xiao-Qing Xie, Wuying Lin, Zheng-Hai Deng, Xin-Lian Wei, Shi-Yong Liu, and Yi-Bo Luo
Retha Edens-Meier and Peter Bernhardt
List of Contributors
Species Index
General Index

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