Another (very good) book on orchids (Plant Portrait XX*)

Well, yes it is, another book on orchids. Another book on Victorian orchids at that. Author Gary Backhouse confesses as much in the very first line of his introduction. But from there, he takes no prisoners. This is a book for those who find orchids beautiful, beguiling and bewitching. It’s my kind of book.

Let’s start with the statistics cited, as close as Gary gets to saying this is a pretty bloody good book about a pretty bloody amazing slice of our Australian flora. There are 410 species photographed and described here, including 344 with proper scientific names (well, that’s on page 1; by page 2 there are 345, which just goes to show how quickly things change in the orchid taxonomy world). Gary says 42% of these are endemic in Victoria, or ‘nearly so’ (that is they stray across a State border, but only a little).

Of Australia’s 1900 or so orchid species, 22% are found in Victoria, a State including only 3% of the national land mass. This makes the geographical focus of the book ‘one of the richest areas in the world for its diversity of temperate terrestrial orchids’. The qualifier here means my colleagues and friends in south-western Western Australia won’t be too offended.

This is a busy book. Gary Backhouse has crammed in as much as he can, with text running within millimetres of the page margins and introductory material minimal. That said the whole book is clearly and cleanly laid out, with big bold maps and three pictures of each species bordering the outer edge of each species page.

The classification largely follows VicFlora but with the bluish spider orchids (Cyanicula and Pheladenia) kept within Caledenia, meaning that (based on the latest evolutionary trees) Glossodia has to return to this genus. You also have the Little Duck Orchid (Paracaleana) kept apart from the Large Duck Orchid (Caleana). I would have liked to have found all alternative names in the index but I'm sure Gary felt this was a little extravagant.   

There are no authorities for names, which I like, and have often advocated for field guides. That said, now that a book is following my advice, I get curious about who described a species and when – wondering to myself whether it was a new or old name, good or bad… Anyway, sacrifices must be made, and authorities are ugly and cluttering.

While keeping things tight and constrained, there are a few bonus pages adding oxygen to the book. One has a selection of ‘hyochromatic’ Caladenia – pale, albino-like variants of the spider orchids – another a few hybrids, and at the end we get a brief summary of species assumed extinct or nearly so.

An e-version (currently on DVD) of this book – called Bush Gems – has more photographs, which is both good and bad. Good because you get to see the variety within a species, reinforcing the point that all plant species exhibit variation, even in their flowers, and we shouldn’t hive off as a species every plant with a wonky or odd-coloured petal. On the other hand, showing more variants tends to encourage the desire to split the species into the local variants illustrated… I’m happy with the decision in Bush Beauties to include three images for each species: at least you get sense of them not being Platonic ideals. 

As mentioned above, Gary Backhouse has chosen to include variants yet to be proposed and published as new species, giving them informal designations and full descriptions. I have mixed feelings about this too. We tend to discourage this generally in case species are inadvertently or deliberately catapulted into the scientific literature and accepted as ‘good’ species even when, as Gary does note, more study is needed to confirm their status. Conversely, providing this information encourages further research and field survey.

The way the book is organised will make sense to orchid enthusiasts. Genera are (mostly, with a few esoteric but practical exceptions) ordered alphabetically but within genera the species are grouped together on morphological similarity. Which does help with identification. You flip through for a for a photograph of something looking like what you have in front of you, then browse images and maps on nearby pages, settling in for a bit of read when you get close to your target. It works well.

I was excited in 1995 when Gary Backhouse and Jeff Jeanes published their book The Orchids of Victoria, an elegant production by The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Press). This was a first for Victoria and set a high standard for orchid books around the country. Back then, there were 270 species, with hints of more to come, and a single portrait of each treasure.

Bush Beauties is a different kind of production, pragmatic and practical, entirely fitting for an age where information is largely electronic. It is another, very good, book on orchids. And I like it.

*   *   *

Bush Beauties: The Wild Orchids of Victoria, Australia by Gary Backhouse, 2019, 443 pp., (

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including passing reference to, plants (in this case it's a lot about plants...). Often, they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed. In my case, it could be that every story has a plant to tell... 

Images: apart from the pages of the book, they are a few of my own orchid pictures taken at various times and from various places around Victoria: Diuris punctata (Purple Donkey Orchid), Caladenia oenochila (Wine-lipped Spider Orchid), Thelymitra carnea (Pink Sun Orchid), Pterostylis planulata (Flat Rustyhood) and a field of Caleana major (Large Duck Orchid).


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Orchids are amazing plants..When I was younger I didn't knot why people get so excited about whole family have them - my mum, my grandma, my aunt..But when I grew up I understood what is the thing. It is so satisfying that from one or two stems you can have so beautiful plants..and they can revive again after they wither! I also noticed that flowers grow better if they have a holder like this one: . It is a crucial thing for their proper growth. To be honest I have never added any fertilizers to my orchids and year in year they are more beautiful!