Laelia aurea - a species hidden in greenhouses and undescribed for over thirty years

  When collecting plants in the tropics, new species lack labels marking them as undescribed.  Nor do they jump out at you and plead “Describe me before I go extinct!”  Gone are the days when nearly every organism in an unexplored land was new.  Exceptions are taken with such distinct species as the slipper orchids, which are so well known that anything unrecognized is new.  Today with over 50 species names (including synonyms), discovery of new species requires extensive knowledge of those already described—a task best undertaken by specialists who can focus on a smaller number of names.

            Today, usually a new species looks suspiciously like something already described to which it is closely related.  One of these is Laelia aurea (1)which resembles the white to lavender Laelia rubescens Lindl. in nearly every way except color.  Yet, the yellow base color is strikingly different.  Discovered in the 1950’s, it was interpreted as merely a yellow form of the variable L. rubescens.  It was known that Laelia rubescens has a broad geographic range from Mexico to western Panama with different intergrading varieties of different sizes and colors from white to deep lavender.  Four species now regarded as synonyms were described on the basis of these extremes.  In this context, populations with yellow flowers were discovered which unsurprisingly were accepted initially as yellow forms of Laelia rubescens

             But it turns out there are other differences.  Beside color, L. aurea has deeply furrowed pseudobulbs probably enabling them to shrivel more effectively with the dry season, more pronounced keels on the lip, and the midlobe of the lip is more heart shaped at the base than that of its better known sister species.  Perhaps most importantly, the habitat of L. aurea is more often described as lithophytic on cliffs than epiphytic on trees, and its range is more northerly than that of L. rubescens in the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Nayarit.  Both species are cultivated easily with no special requirements.

            Many species of attractive orchids were known a long time before being described.  Paphiopedilum hennisianum once appeared as a photograph mislabeled as Cypripedium lawrenceanum in a gardening dictionary earlier in this century long before its description in 1976.  Milton Warne published a photo of a paph in the Bulletin of the Pacific Orchid Society (1962) awaiting its description in 1983 as Paphiopedilum adductum.  Perhaps the most glaring botanical embarrassment has been the relatively recent description of Cypripedium kentuckiense (2) over a hundred years after it was first known—this in a country that is one of the best known botanically in the world.  These are attractive orchids admired by a broad public.  What about those less attractive orchids with more limited appreciation?  What about all those other plant families, animals, protists, fungi, photosynthetic bacteria, and non-photosynthetic bacteria?

1. Orquídea (Méx.) 12:41-46, 1990.
2. Phytologia 48:426-428, 1981.