The New Encyclopedia of Orchids. Isobel la Croix. 2008. Timber Press, 133 S.W. Second Avenue, Suite 450, Portland, OR 97204-3527 www.timberpress.com. 524 pp. List price $59.95. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-88192-876-1.
Can there be any family of plants about which more books have been written than orchids? The title New Encyclopedia of Orchids suggests that there must be an old encyclopedia, and A.D. Hawkes' Encyclopedia of Cultivated Orchids (1965) may be that antecedent, but this encyclopedia is no revised form of the older book, which featured mainly line drawings. Author Isobel la Croix is a well-known orchid authority with specialization in the African species. She has edited the Orchid Review, a highly respected orchid journal, as well as contributed articles on her collecting, orchid horticulture, and orchid taxonomy to many orchid journals.
The orchid family consists of more than 800 genera and over 25,000 species. This encyclopedia treats 1500 species in 350 genera, and the choices must have been daunting, not only in what to include and illustrate – with magnificent photographs, it must be said – but also what taxonomic names to accept. Although orchid taxonomy was based originally on morphology, recent DNA analysis has rearranged relationships, and la Croix has used her best judgment to assign the names in this treatment using the Genera Orchidacearum project (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK). Still, one might wish for mention of the synonymy of revised names as in The Manual of Cultivated Orchid Species (3rd edition, Bechtel, Cribb and Lammert, 1991).
Several short chapters, totaling about 17 pages in all, sketchily introduce orchid naming, what makes an orchid an orchid, orchid cultivation, pests and diseases, and conservation and propagation. This overview just barely covers what an amateur needs to know as a beginner, but a bibliography of some 163 reference books can lead the avid orchidologist deeper into the mysteries and intricacies of orchid identification, culture, and geography.
This encyclopedia targets species only and clearly excludes the many hybrids (Orchids are noted for their promiscuity and many intra- and intergeneric hybrids exist). It would have been useful, however, to have noted which among the species have contributed to important hybrid groups. The target audience for this book is evidently the orchid species collector; and the price is quite reasonable, so Timber Press can expect to do well with this addition to its line of horticultural books. The color photographs alone make this volume impressive. A similar treatment, Flora's Orchids, from the same publisher and to which Isobel la Croix was a consultant, is also well-illustrated but is a little less detailed per species while offering a little more information on history and cultivation.
The main portion of the book gives each genus a brief taxonomic treatment including the principal author, tribe and sub-tribe, the etymology of the genus name, and the distribution of the species. A more detailed description of the genus follows and some tips on cultivation. Each species that is included receives a more detailed description in the same format. This standardized format works well, and most of the species are illustrated with clear photographs by Manuel Aubron, who must have a large collection of orchid images and access to superb orchid collections (of him we learn little on the flyleaf or preface).
If one is interested in more detail about orchid structure, Timber Press' An Illustrated Survey of Orchid Genera by Tom and Marion Sheehan (1994) probably gives a better background. Orchid physiology is almost completely omitted in the New Encyclopedia, so scientists working in this area will find little to lead them into research on flowering, responses to growth regulators, photosynthate partitioning, tissue culture, or postharvest physiology. However, the diverse floral forms stimulate questions about how best to grow and manage potential new crops beyond the present Phalaenopsis, Oncidium, Dendrobium, Cymbidium, and Cattleya species offerings in the marketplace. The earlier encyclopedia by Hawkes at least mentioned the time of flowering to trigger some hypotheses about the influences of daylength and temperature on flowering. The bibliography does list a number of worthy books on orchid cultivation – all targeted to the hobbyist, it seems.
Useful supplements beyond the bibliography include a glossary of terms, a short list of common names, and an index to the scientific names. The book was printed in China, and the quality of photographs is very good. The editing appears to have been tight and kept everything consistent. Although this book will not find its way onto the bookshelves of many horticulturists, it will be a useful reference to a segment of the flower-loving public as well as the large fan base of orchid hobbyists.