The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Field Guide to Ethiopian Orchids

Sebsebe Demissew, Phillip Cribb, Finn Rasmussen

Reviewer - Anne Parsons

Orchids are not usually the flowers I think of in conjunction with Ethiopia and therefore, even as a non-botanist, I found this book very informative and welcome. Many of the Ethiopian orchids were first collected and described in the 19th century but despite this they are sparsely represented in herbaria and have been little understood. When the Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea was published in 1997 only 154 species of orchid were recognised in Ethiopia. Now there are an estimated 167 species, of which 28 are endemic; several of the new species have been discovered and described by the present authors. New studies have resulted in a change in the classification of some orchids; this field guide uses these revisions although it is acknowledged that further study is still required. The majority of the orchids are terrestrial and can be found in grasslands and woodlands; only about 16% either grow on trees (epiphytes) or grow on rocks (lithophytes).

Botanical keys are included to enable first the genus and then the species to be identified. More general information is also included. Two maps inside the front covers compare the regions of Ethiopia in 2004 with the pre-1987 administrative regions of Shewa, Gonder, Gojjam, Web, Harerge, Bale, Sidamo etc. with which many readers will be very familiar. Some short introductory essays cover the geography, geology, climate, and vegetation of Ethiopia and provide useful background. The inside back covers have line drawings giving technical terms for the main structure of a terrestrial and epiphytic orchid - together with a rule for measuring plant size in the field. The majority of the book is devoted to detailed entries for each orchid and follows a standard format covering description, habitat and distribution, flowering period, conservation status, and notes. The technical description is perhaps best appreciated by experts. The habitat and distribution notes list the geographical areas and altitude where the orchids may be found and are accompanied by small maps highlighting these areas - using the pre-1987 regional names. The flowering period is given, usually occurring during the rainy seasons. The conservation notes classify according to terms ranging from locally common to critically endangered or possibly extinct in Ethiopia and sadly too many of the species seem to lie towards the danger end of the spectrum rather than the common end. The rarity of the orchids is amply highlighted by the fact that Habenaria egregria, illustrated on the front cover and a wonderfully 'showy' orchid (a term applied to the sort of orchid we see in our florist shops for example), is known in Ethiopia from only two specimens. Many of the orchids, however, are really quite modest in appearance and surprisingly small.

Most of the species, but not all, are shown in colour photographs and there are ample line drawings in the text to aid recognition. Regrettably it is often the endemic species which lack a photograph. A few photographs do not do the subjects justice with a focus on the wrong part of the plant or insufficient depth-of-field. I'm sure that many readers will be adding pencil notations to the identification keys to mark the relevant page number for each species as it can be difficult to find the referenced section. There are also a few typographical errors and inconsistencies in spellings. These though are minor irritations only and I hope the book is successful enough so that a reprint or revised edition can address these issues.

This book is presented in a nice physical format, fitting with relative ease into a large jacket pocket for field use. It is nicely bound, opens well, and will stand up to relatively heavy usage before falling apart. Although presumably aimed at a specialist market, rather than the casual or general reader interested in Ethiopian matters, I will take a copy with me when I am walking in Ethiopia. Even if I am not in the correct location at the appropriate flowering period to find an orchid, I hope it will encourage me to look more carefully at the surrounding flora.

Field guide to Ethiopian orchids by Sebsebe Demissew, Phillip Cribb, and Finn Rasmussen is published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2004.
300 pages, colour photos, line drawings, distribution maps. Limpback with stiffened card covers.
ISBN: 1842460714
Price: £29.95 or $58.40

First Published in News File Spring 2005

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