In a cloud forest on the Indonesian island of Seram an orchid was collected during an expedition led by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1986. The living specimen made it safely back to Edinburgh and was later identified as Pedilonum seranicum (J.J. Sm.) Rauschert, a species that had been published as new to science in 1983 by Stephan Rauschert (1931-1986). This orchid has grown and flowered at the Garden ever since.

Detail from the botanical painting by Sharon Tingey of Dendrobium seranicum, painted from life in 2019.

The naming of plants can be a convoluted process and this orchid is a case in point. This blog is an attempt to summarise the story.

At some point taxonomic opinion turned against Rauschert. Rauschert was in fact not the first to regard this orchid as new to science. The name of this earlier discoverer was consequently placed in brackets in front of Rauschert’s own name as per the rules that govern the naming of plants. Botanists continually overturn previous thinking but the ‘authors’ of earlier names are never written out of the story entirely, they simply end up in brackets. This is why to fully understand a scientific name you need what botanists call ‘the authority’.

The first botanist to recognise this orchid as new was actually Johannes Jacobus Smith (1867-1947). Smith was a Belgian-born Dutch botanist of some note as he has an entry in a publication called Taxonomic literature, a kind of Who’s Who for botanists. Smith was an orchidologist and horticulturist whose career was split between what is now Bogor Botanical Gardens in Indonesia and Hortus Botanicus Leiden in the Netherlands. In 1928 Smith described Dendrobium seranicum J.J. Sm. as a new species. The passage of time has led botanists to conclude that the evidence does not support Rauchert and so they have reverted to the original name published by Smith, which placed this orchid in the very large genus Dendrobium.

As a post script it is worth saying that there is never a last word, or definitive answer, in taxonomy. Someone could find convincing evidence to resurrect Rauschert’s name for this orchid. However, what will not change is that this beautiful orchid will be thought of simply as Ian’s orchid by his friends at RBGE. This is because it was Ian Edwards, the former Head of Public Engagement, who collected this orchid in Seram and was the first to bring it into the Garden’s collection.