I invite you to step aboard a unique boat for a reflective journey across the troubled waters of orchid taxonomy, seen through my eyes as an orchid grower and former biogeographer and social scientist. I lend my own complex intellectual taxonomy to this subject with the intention of illuminating some of the ongoing whirlpools of debate. And, more importantly, I wish to offer a lighthouse vista for better navigation.
I do not promise greater simplicity or “the answer” of what to write on an orchid label, but more clarity (and good questions) from an overview of the clashing (intellectual, social, and economic) worlds that create the “troubles.”
The inspiration to write this article was a thoughtful discussion with an Australian Cymbidium grower, Joshua White, regarding the identity of an orchid in one of the photographs on this website. I had labeled it Cymbidium sanderae, and he suggested that this “species” is actually a hybrid swarm, and the plant depicted was more accurately a form of Cymbidium parishii. We reviewed the taxonomic quandary for Cymbidium sanderae in depth, and reached a friendly resolution of our discussion. (We agreed to call it Cymbidium sanderae. For now.)
But what was actually resolved? Other than a name on photograph, that is. Our very narrow discussion of this Cymbidium species inspired me to write this article on what remains very unresolved — and perhaps irresolvable — in the big picture of the intersection of science and horticulture in discussions of species, hybrids, and “correct” orchid taxonomy.
Orienting to the Big Picture
In my academic days, I spent considerable time researching changing concepts of nature, and what is referred to as the “social construction of reality.” My observation of many discussions on changing orchid taxonomy hearken me back to those dialogues, where many different interests have a stake in what is “right” and “true” in the categorization of something from the non-human (a.k.a. “natural”) world.
A climate of conflict, dissension, and shifting norms of nature are not unique to the many deliberations on orchid taxonomy. From a bigger picture view, these debates on the boundaries of nature are being highlighted in many of the divisive and emotionally charged topics in contemporary society, e.g., gender, racial identity, personhood rights, GMOs, and a plethora of issues generically labeled as “environmental.”
What can orchid growers learn from this wider angle view on the shifting boundaries of what is considered “natural”?
The Social Process of Science
First, let us reconsider the species concept itself. There is no ultimate arbitrator of what is a species (or not). The determination of taxonomy is a social process and species nomenclature is a social product. That might irk some people, but I am offering the perspective that the conduct of science is a social process: it is done by people in varying disciplines, locations, timeframes, and institutions with different standards. Scientific knowledge is deemed valid and/or accurate through the application of an (evolving) community consensus of standards. Usually those are thoughtful, useful, and rigorous standards, compared to many other speculative, erratic, and transient knowledge forms.
In this respect, then, there is no one who is inherently right, and no one to “blame” when a species classification is proposed to change. Based upon a set of (scientific/social) standards, within a (botanical research) community, there is evolution in the understanding of the relationship of a plant or group of plants, which then leads to a different organization of thought. “Names” are then applied to reflect those concepts. A “new” proposed taxa could be more precisely viewed as a new conceptual point in time along the progression of evolving botanical ideas.
There might be a person, or an organization, that serves a lightning rod or figurehead, but they too are ultimately temporary in the evolution of knowledge and institutions.
It is always a choice in your own growing area whether (or not) to adopt the new proposed taxonomy standard. People have varying degrees of enthusiasm about this, which also reflects larger trends in society. Some are “early adopters” and jump onto a new bandwagon quickly while others dig in their heels, convinced that the ideas were better and right at some time in the past.
Sound familiar in the “I don’t want to change my orchid label” groans that arise when a new orchid taxonomy emerges?
Again, there’s no right or wrong. History bears out that neither end of the reactionary spectrum (“changers” and “conservatives”) always have a more beneficial and useful response than the other. In many respects, an orchid name is more reflective of a “process” than a “fact.” An orchid name is a point in time along the botanical research process, a continuum extending forward and backwards. This is a deep shift in perspective for many people, who have come to expect an authority to provide a steadfast answer as part of their framework for daily life.
Herein lies the crux of the conflict: the differing aspirations of the process of science and the process of orchid growing.
Scientific standards are not concerned about the practicalities of managing an orchid collection or the confusion in plant sales when a taxonomic change is proposed. Botany is operating on a very different set of (social) standards for the value of new information and changes. In many respects, scientific research, and scientific researchers, are inherently predisposed to change — the generation of new knowledge, insight, and published papers.
This aspect of the scientific standard, or predisposition, runs counter to the predisposition of orchid growers and horticulturalists regarding taxonomy. Long-term consistency in categorization of taxa is easier and more practicable for breeding and selling orchids. Of course, then, there’s not much happiness with the new scientific discovery that leads to a change — in this context, change equates to hassle.
But most scientists probably see it the other way around: change equates to innovation, professional success, and new opportunities to publish more changes.
The Lumpers and Splitters
This leads us into another perspective on the tension between the taxonomic “lumpers” and “splitters.” Placement into one camp or the other is based upon a particular worldview, set of expectations, and organizational proclivity. Similarly, some people are happy to pile all of their socks into one drawer, and others have neat rows for each color. But both groups would probably draw the line at stuffing shoes in that same drawer. This is a simplistic example, but illustrates that there isn’t necessarily a fundamental natural order that is being illuminated in taxonomic divisions. Lumping and splitting are more social and psychological tendencies than inherent statements about the nature of reality.
I also observe that there is a strong difference between horticultural and scientific botany in the zeal for species and hybrid differentiation. This likely has a lot to do with economics: more splitting (into species, varieties, and forms) creates more products to sell. Therefore, there’s a strong incentive to maintain and elevate species and varietal status within horticulture, completely disconnected from the biological and geographical reality of the orchid.
Which then leads us into even more troubled waters: the meaning of species and hybrids.
The Scientific Species and the Horticultural Species
Building upon the reflection that the species concept, and the process of categorizing a species, is an inherently social process, we can revisit the very different context of species in a natural/wild environment compared to a horticultural environment.
My first contemplation of this issue was raised at an orchid society meaning, when a well-respected member pointed out that the Laelia anceps on the display table were more like hybrids than species. Geographically distinct varieties, which would be unlikely to interbreed in the “wild,” had been crossed and linebred. The resulting orchids of these multi-generational breeding efforts are still labeled as “species,” but they actually bear little to no resemblance to anything that you would find of the species in the wild, visually or genetically.
This observation can be widely applied across many genera, and generations of linebreeding, that have produced orchids that would probably be quite unsuited to life outside of a greenhouse. Chemical-induced polyploidy introduces another leap from wild form genetics. Yet, many still fervently debate how to apply the concepts of wild biology to the proper categorization of largely human-made horticultural creations.
I suggest that there is considerable clarity to be gained by conceptually differentiating between “wild” or “biological” species and “horticultural species.” As noted in the example above, in many instances, the line between “horticultural species” and “horticultural hybrid” can be quite fuzzy.
Particularly, the provenance and naming of many (horticultural) species has been muddled over the past two centuries of orchid collecting, leading to questionable pedigrees (and genetic infusions) into many plants. When you consider the deliberate and accidental misidentifications of source plants, for which records are often long gone, the “purity,” and accurately known heritage, of a very significant portion of horticultural orchids — both species and hybrids — is in serious question.
There is another significant aspect to consider — what happens when an orchid makes the transition from a “wild species” to a “horticultural species”?
When horticulture becomes engaged in the conservation of critically endangered orchid species, for example from the genus Paphiopedilum, the long-term results for the preservation of the biological species is questionable. First, species of hybridization and/or commercial value are more likely to persist in collections. Second, those species that do persist usually become part of breeding programs to “improve” the flowers. The result is not sustaining natural biological or genetic diversity of these orchids, but genetic development and conformation to a purely human-created aesthetic vision (i.e., orchid society judging standards).
This is not a surprising outcome, when economics and value are considered, and exposes one of the limits of horticulture for species conservation. After failing to sustain its value as a native species in situ, an orchid species now needs to “earn its keep” in ex situ propagation. While we are using the “same name” for this biological entity, there is genetic, visual, and conceptual shift from life in the wild to life on the greenhouse bench. Does that species name truly represent the same orchid in the same way any longer?
Facing Dead Ends to Wild Species Taxonomy
Many of the difficulties in “properly” categorizing wild orchids into species, varieties, and forms are compounded by the loss of the species themselves. Sampling errors can be significant, especially as the natural habitat of many species are degraded or gone. There are “holes” in the biogeographic map now that no amount of technology and gene sequencing can fill. When and if did populations interbreed? How accurate are the remaining spotty collections and discoveries in delineating the recent and long-term historical range and evolution of a species?
In the wake of habitat destruction, range continuity, genetic continuity, and morphological diversity are becoming harder and harder to characterize, especially for wide-ranging species. Sometimes, such as the case for the Cym. sanderae debate which initially inspired this commentary, there is credible suggestion of a natural hybrid or hybrid swarm. But, often now, looking at the locations of current populations of species, identifying appropriate parent species is an open and difficult question.
It is sobering to conclude that since much biodiversity and habitat loss are permanent, there may never be a firm answer to many ongoing questions on the evolutionary relationship, and taxonomic status, of certain species. The data needed to fill those gaps in understanding are gone — and irreplaceable. Which, in many respects, is not unlike the horticultural uncertainties arising from missing or imprecise breeding records for various orchid lineages.
The succinct point of the preceding discussion on “species” (and, of course, associated genera) is that many of taxonomic discussions are misaligned, and metaphorically “shooting arrows into the air” out of original context. Much conflict and misunderstanding arises from the application of intention, concepts, and process from one realm (botanical science of wild orchids) into a very different realm (commercial and individual horticultural propagation of orchids).
When it comes to orchid taxonomy, and turbulent waters of change, I suggest taking a deep breath and being clear about what you care about and why. It is possible to have a variety of perspectives that all contribute to a whole understanding of what an orchid can and should be named. You can change the labels on your orchids. Or not — unless that is, you are part of a social process or institution of horticulture (e.g., exhibition, export permits) that requires you to conform with the current social process of science. In this case, your orchids inescapably intersect with the shifting norms of human knowledge about them.
What appears so tangible and certain as a plant name and label is more like a rock in a river. It seems permanent, but always erodes, and occassionally dramatically tumbles away. Sometimes the best thing to do is just watch the river flow.
A’na Sa’tara, D.Phil