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Vol. 8(3), pp. 5-9The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalMarch 2007

The Polystachya concreta story

Greig Russell

Polystachya is a genus comprising about 230 currently-accepted species, and although primarily an African genus, one species is found in south and south-east Asia, and a whole group of closely related species are encountered in the Americas. In the United States, a single species occurs in Florida, but the same species is also widespread in the Caribbean, its distribution also extending down through Meso-america to South America.

Fig. 1. Charles Plumier's figure of Helleborine ramosa, floribus minimis luteis, drawn in the 1690's, redrawn in Paris by one of Boerhaave's artists and published in J. Burmann's, C. Plumier - Plantarum Americanarum of 1758.

Many of the first tropical orchids seen in Europe came from the Caribbean area, as this was one of the first tropical areas to be colonised by European powers. It is therefore not remarkable that this species was first collected in the West Indies, but it is surprising to find that it carried more than one of those marvellously descriptive, if cumbersome, pre-Linnaean polynomials. The first of these came about when the plant was collected and drawn by Charles Plumier in the West Indies, in the closing years of the 17th century. He listed it as Helleborine ramosa, floribus minimis luteis in 1703. Burmann published a drawing of it in 1758 (Fig. 1).

Charles Plumier (b. April 20, 1646 in Marseilles; d. November 20, 1704 near Cadiz in Spain) was a French botanist, after whom the genus Plumeria (the frangipani) is named. As a youth, he took religious orders and became a gifted student and artist. Sent to Rome, he studied botany and on returning to France became a pupil of of the renowned botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. In 1689 he was sent as an assistant botanist to the French Antilles, and following the success of this visit, he was appointed a Royal Botanist to Louis XIV and was sent back to the French Antilles in 1693. This was followed by a third tour in 1695. Just prior to leaving on his fourth journey, during which he intended to go to Peru to study cinchona, he developed pleurisy and died.

During his life, two botanical works that he authored were published, as well as a work on the art of turning. A further volume on the ferns of America was published shortly after his death. He left 31 volumes of manuscripts and 6000 drawings (4000 of plants and 2000 of members of the animal kingdom). The Dutch botanist, Boerhaave had 500 of the plant drawings copied, which Johannes Burmann published about 50 years after Plumier's death. Plumier was truly an amazing and devoted botanist and person.

Fig. 2. Mark Catesby's painting of Viscum Caryophylloides, ramosum, floribus minimis, albis (minus the corn snake), published in the second volume of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands of 1743.

One can only wonder whether Plumier intended some pun or in-joke when he used the word "minimis" in his lovely polynomial; he was, after all, a member of the monastic order known as the Minimi and rendered his name in Latin as Pater Carolus Plumier Minimus. Other polynomials followed - Mark Catesby, in his sumptuous Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands of 1731-1743 named this plant Viscum Caryophylloides, ramosum, floribus minimis, albis (Fig. 2). This reads to me as a "clove-like mistletoe..." !!

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was a most talented natural history collector and artist who travelled in what is now the south-east USA from 1712-1719, sketching and documenting everything that interested him as he went. From 1722-1725, he was once again in the USA, adding to his body of work, and continued from there through the Bahamas to Bermuda before returning to England. Between 1731 and 1747 he published what is now acknowledged as the first serious scientific work on American flora and fauna, the above mentioned work.

Regarding his "clove-like mistletoe," Catesby said the following:

"This Plant from a bulbous Root riseth with four or five, and sometimes more succulent Leaves; which before it flowers, resemble both in Root and Leaf a Narcissus; from the middle of the Leaves rises a slender stiff Stem, about eighteen Inches long, at the upper Part of which are alternately placed its Flowers, singly on short Footstalks. The Flower is hollow, the Back of the Cup growing into a pointed Petal, and from the Bottom of the Cup on each Side spreads two pointed Petals, the whole Flower of a light Green, within the Hollow of it are yellow Stamina. These Flowers are succeded by small semilunar Seed-Vessels, both Ends being blunt, and one bigger than the other, containing very small dusty Seeds. They grow on bare Rocks on many of the Bahama Islands, and sometimes upon Trees, in the Manner of Misselto."

Patrick Browne (1720-1790), an Irish physician and botanist published The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica in 1756, which included 49 plates of fish, insects and plants by the famous engraver G. Ehret. Burmann records Satyrium parasiticum, foliis oblongis, radicalibus, scapo assurgenti, longo, sarmentoso, nudo, ad apicem ramoso, labio inferiore floris cordato? from this book as a possible synonym of Plumier's plant. The description offered by this name sounds pretty good to me. There appears to be no illustration of the plant thus named. Burmann, himself, called the plant Epidendrum foliis radicalibus, lanceolatis, trinerviis; racemo composito, floribus minutis.

When the great Nikolaus Joseph, Freiherr (later Baron) von Jacquin (for whom I supply no potted biography, as anything short of three or four pages would undersell him seriously) spent some years engaged in the botanical exploration of the West Indies. He encountered Plumier's species on Martinique but failed to recognise it as such, and in 1760 he described it as Epidendrum concretum. Unfortunately, Jacquin also failed to offer either an herbarium specimen or an illustration of this species, and his description was couched in his own "Jacquinese;" a rather difficult-to-understand set of botanical terms; so for two centuries, nobody knew to what species his description referred.

Linnaeus never appears to have latched onto this plant, so the French botanist Fusée-Aublet, unaware of the identity of Epidendrum concretum, set up a binomial for this species in 1775, naming it Epidendrum minimum, basing the specific epithet on Plumier's favourite word,"minimis."

The Swedish botanist and Linnaean pupil Olaf Swartz also botanised extensively in the West Indies. In 1800, when creating a catalogue of all then known orchids, he put the species into his newly erected genus Dendrobium, naming it D. polystachyon. In 1804, in his flora of the West Indies he described the same plant as Cranichis luteola, the species epithet being based on the "luteis" in the Plumier polynomial. He was fully aware of the Aublet name for this plant, thus these two names are illegitimate.

In 1824, W. J. Hooker decided that these plants were neither dendrobiums nor Cranichis and erected the genus Polystachya, this name being based on one of the illegitimate species epithets that Swartz had used. The origin of this name is the Greek πολυς (poluv) meaning "many" and σταχυς (stacuv) meaning "ear of grain" or "spike". This name referred specifically to the branching spike seen in plants of P. concreta and related species, where "ears of grain" arise at intervals along the raceme. As Hooker's type species name Polystachya luteola was based on an illegitimate Swartz name, it is itself illegitimately named. So for many years, our species was known as Polystachya luteola, Polystachya minuta, Polystachya flavescens or Polystachya extinctoria, the latter two names arising from other works, depending on the specific author's inclination.

Fig. 3. Polystachya pinicola Barb. Rodr. This Brazilian species is sometimes considered synonymous with P. concreta, although currently it is accepted as a valid species. The genus Polystachya draws its name from the "ears of grain" seeming to arise at intervals along the raceme in this and related species. Plant grown by Volkmar Schmidt, flowering March, 2004. Digital photo DSCN4580a.jpg, photo: G. Russell.

In 1974, the brilliant Harvard botanist, Leslie Garay, published a paper in the Colombian orchid journal Orquideología in which he described the work he undertook which lead him to an understanding of "Jacquinese" and the subsequent identification of Jacquin's Epidendrum concretum (Fig. 3). By studying Jacquin's descriptions of other orchids that were accompanied by illustrations, he was able to establish meanings for the various terms used in these descriptions. He then translated the Latin description of Epidendrum concretum and created a "working image" of the plant. With all this in hand, he worked through a list of the orchids of Martinique and realised that Jacquin's concept could only refer to the plant hitherto known as Polystachya flavescens, or more often, P. luteola, W. J. Hooker's nomen illegitimum, etc. Garay and Sweet thus made the new combination Polystachya concreta for this species in 1974.

As an example of "Jacquinese", try the following:

CUCULLUS = anther cap
FILAMENTUM = pollinium
GENITALIA = column
GERMEN = ovary
LABIUM SUPERIUS = column or clinandrium or both
NECTARIUM = lip or nectary or column, depending on the context.

This is obviously not exactly an easy "language" to master!

The species Polystachya concreta, as it is understood today, varies from author to author. Garay originally included many similar plants from Asia, Africa and America--offering some 50 synonyms. It is now generally agreed that Garay's synonyms of African origin are not referable to P. concreta, but the Asian names which are now considered to belong to a single species are inexplicably still included in P. concreta. Since no one has reviewed the genus Polystachya in 80-odd years, it would appear that the time is ripe for such work, and modern techniques of DNA cladistics should prove to be most helpful in sorting out a number of pertinent questions.


Many thanks to Kenneth Roberts of Florida, USA, for a scan of the Garay article.


Plumier, C. 1703. Nova plantarum americanarum, Cat. Pl. 9.

Burmann, J. 1758. In Plumier, C., Plantarum Americanarum, Fasciculus Octavus, t. 185 (1).

Catesby, M. 1743. Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands. 2: t. 55.

Jacquin, N.J. 1760. Enumeratio systematica plantarum. p. 30.

Jacquin, N.J. 1763. Selectarum stirpium Americanarum historia. p. 228.

Aublet, J.B.C. Fusée. 1775. Histoire des plantes de la Guiane française 2: 824.

Swartz O. 1800. Orchidernes Slägter och Arter Upställde. Kongl. Vetensk. Acad. Nya Handl. 21: 247.

Swartz O. 1806. Flora Indiae occidentalis. 3: 1433.

Hooker, W.J. 1824. Exotic Flora 2: t. 103.

Garay, L. A. 1974. Terminología de orchidearum Jacquinii. Orquideología; Revista de la Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología 9 (3): 200-210.

_______., & Sweet, H. R. 1974. In Howard, R. A. Flora of the Lesser Antilles, Leeward and Windward Islands: Orchidaceae. 1: 178. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2007 Greig Russell