Orchids of Tropical America: An Introduction and Guide


Treats 122 of the most eyecatching and widespread orchid groups, from the Bahamas to Brazil

Easy to use identification system allows rapid recognition of almost any orchid flower

More than 480 stunning photos from world-class orchid growers and photographers

Entertaining accounts of ecology, medicinal uses and history bring each group to life

Invaluable as a field guide for orchid tourists visiting tropical America - over 100 reserves and parks featured


Dr. Joe Meisel is vice president of the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation, and has worked for over 20 years in Latin America conducting research, teaching, and working with local landowners and communities to protect orchid habitat.

Joe Meisel

Dr. Ron Kaufmann is a professor at the University of San Diego, a long-time orchid grower, founding member of the Orchid Conservation Alliance and chair of the San Diego County Orchid Society's Conservation Committee.

Dr. Franco Pupulin is the orchid curator of the Lankester Botanical Garden in Costa Rica, editor-in-chief of Lankesteriana, and frequent contributor to scientific journals on the subject of orchid taxonomy.

Contact Info

Cornell University Press

Book website
2014 Catalog description


Description: Vanilla plants are easily recognized by their climbing, vine-like appearance and spectacular but short-lived flowers. Flower: Spreading sepals and petals of these large flowers (to 4" [10 cm] across) are pale yellowish green to white. The forward-jutting lip, usually marked with orange or yellow, occasionally red to purple, has a ruffled outer edge and a sheath-like base that wraps the column. The long column is hairy underneath, with a large flap of tissue (the rostellum) covering the stigmatic area. Plant: A very elongated stem (to 40' [12 m] or more) twines up tree trunks and branches, clinging with aerial roots. Leaves can be large (to 9" [23 cm] and longer), shiny, and leathery, or so small the plant resembles a leafless vine. Inflorescences emerge from the leaf axils, bearing only a few flowers that wilt within hours of opening.

Vanilla aphylla

Distribution & Diversity:  More than 100 species occur terrestrially, or rarely as
epiphytes, throughout the world's low- and middle-elevation wet tropical forests.

Ecology & History: Vanilla is the most important commercial product obtained from orchids. The flavoring, composed of vanillin plus more than 150 aromatic compounds, is produced through labor-intensive processing of vanilla "beans" (actually seed capsules: the tiny black flecks in natural vanilla ice cream are orchid seeds). Commercial vanilla comes primarily from V. planifolia, which in the wild is pollinated by bees. Large-scale production was hampered until a slave named Edmond Albius discovered that lifting the rostellum with a sliver of bamboo permitted hand-pollination. Since his epiphany, most operations moved to Madagascar and Indonesia, together responsible for 80% of world production. With prices occasionally exceeding US$1,000 per pound, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron. The Aztecs mixed vanilla with cacao to make a sumptuous drink they called chocolatl. Spanish conquerors brought it home, and soon hot chocolate became popular in cafés across Europe. Thomas Jefferson shipped the first cured capsules to the United States and published his recipe for ice cream (1 quart heavy cream, 1 vanilla bean, 6 egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar). Vanilla, taken alone or in chocolatl, is reputed to have medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties: the Aztec emperor Moctezuma drank 50 pitchers per day, particularly before visiting his wives.


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  • Introduction
  • Foreword by Dr. Phil Cribb
  • Introduction to the guide
  • Orchid Diversity, Ecology & Conservation
  • Introduction to orchid biology and ecology
  • Why are orchids so diverse?
  • Fooling flies, duping lovers & other ecological tales
  • Collectors & bandits, a history of orchids and the people that pursued them
  • Threats and conservation:  what is being done to save orchids?
  • Rapid Identification Guide
  • Illustrated glossary of key orchid characteristics
  • How to identify orchid groups
  • Easy-to-use orchid identification system
  • Field Guide and Genus Descriptions
  • Detailed description each genus, from stem to sepal
  • How to distinguish from similar orchids
  • Distribution & diversity, preferred habitat type and elevation
  • Ecological oddities, human history & other wild tales
  • Superb photographs of the most prominent, widely seen, and historically important species
  • Where to See Orchids
  • Orchid-centered reserves in over 20 Central & South America and Caribbean countries
  • Orchid Resources
  • Links to online sites for orchid identification, care and purchase
  • Extensive bibliography of orchid literature

Sample Genus Accounts


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