Thursday, October 6, 2011

The library of orchid expert Eric Christenson

By all accounts, Eric Christenson was a world-renowned authority on orchids. He was a research taxonomist, a scientist who studied orchid species and classified them, recommending scientific names for new species. [Below is a video he made in 2006 explaining his work.]

In 2002, Christenson was hard at work on a description of a new species that had been discovered in Peru. Christenson, who lived in Bradenton surrounded by a 3,000-volume library of orchid references, had spent considerable time studying Peruvian orchids and had become a leading authority on them. He worked from photographs from colleagues in Peru.

On June 12 of that year, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota published a description of a new unclassified species—the same one that Christenson had been working on. A specimen of the plant had been brought to Selby by orchid enthusiast Michael Kovach from Peru. He said he got it from a rural crossroads flower stand. It was a ladyslipper orchid and it had never been classified.

The scientists at Selby Gardens named the flower Phragmipedium kovachii, after Kovach. They said it was the most spectacular orchid discovery in a hundred years and they sent out a news release about it. The orchid world was all atwitter.

On June 17, a livid Christenson published his description of the flower in Orchids magazine, a publication of the American Orchid Society. Christenson said the name should be Phragmipedium peruvianum, although some scientists didn't think that was a good name because there was another flower that had a similar name.

Phragmipedium kovachii
Three days later the Peruvian government complained to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Kovach had violated the endangered species act. Kovach ended up in court, was tried and sentenced to two years probation and a $1,000 fine. The whole scandalous episode was an embarrassing nightmare to Selby Gardens, which ended up with a $5,000 fine itself.

As for Christenson, he was vindicated but the name of the flower was never changed. The episode did bring Christenson world recognition though. "He was well known before that time but the kovachii incident made him famous around the world," California orchid grower Marni Turkel told the Bradenton Herald for his obituary. Christenson died in April of this year.

Christenson is well remembered in orchid circles. He did field work in Guyana and French Guiana as well as Peru, and wrote numerous books and articles about his findings. He worked with David Bennett of Lima in researching orchids in Peru, identifying more than 100 new species.

Christenson's vast library can be seen by appointment at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It contains numerous rare and unusual volumes, including a numbered, limited edition reprint of the 1837 edition of James Bateman's The Orchidaceae of  Mexico and Guatemala,  a 1677 volume by Swiss botanist Caspar Bouhin, an 1887 edition of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, published by his son Francis, and an 1846 first edition of a book by British botonist George Gardner.

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