Genus Caucaea (former Oncidium section cucullata)

Harry Zelenko was born in New York City. Six years ago, he moved from New York City to Quito, Ecuador where he paints, illustrates, writes and is a part time-gardener for more than 6.000 orchids.
His writing has been published, he has lectured and exhibited nationally and internationally and has received many awards for his ARTwork.
After thirteen years of painting Oncidium, he designed and published the first edition of "The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Oncidium" and after another seven years, published the second revised edition with more than 850 same-size paintings of plants and flowers. During the 18th WOC, he presents a lecture about "The Oncidium alliance with an emphasis on Caucaea" and exhibited paintings from his book.

ON: Oncidium, in the traditional sense, seems to be a large genus.
HZ: Yes. According to Mark W. Chase, there are more than 1,400 species in the alliance. One of my favorite groups (I love the color purple) is now called Caucaea. Caucaea radiata was recognized by Schltr in 1920 but remained somewhat obscure until 2001, when N.H. Williams & M.W. Chase proposed the transference of some species in the Cucullata section to Caucaea based on DNA analysis.

ON: It seems that Oncidium cucullatum (Caucaea olivaceum) is one of your favorites, what is your opinion about this change?
HZ: Chase and Norris Williams discovered with molecular analysis that Caucaea radiata was consistent with the DNA of what we called Oncidium cucullatum and its relatives, and the genus was renamed based on Caucaea being the oldest name. Caucaea radiata is a small-flowered white and brown species named for the locale where it was found IN Cauca, Colombia. Lindley’s name, Oncidium cucullatum had been preceded by the name Oncidium olivaceum by Kunth in the early 1800’s. Caucaea olivaceum is now the correct nomenclature for what we have been calling Oncidium cucullatum. Some taxonomists feel that DNA results are open to interpretation and for that reason may be in question. I believe that molecular studies offer the most accurate information and should be accepted until something more definitive comes along.

ON: How many species are included in this genus?
HZ: In my opinion the genus Caucaea is currently limited to about seven species and that geographic distribution and different “living conditions” account for the variety of color, shape, size, and pattern. The group includes the species Caucaea sanguinolenta from Colombia and Ecuador, C. mimetica from Colombia and Venezuela, C. olivaceum from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; C. phalaenopsis from Ecuador and Peru, C. nubigena from Ecuador and Peru, C. radiata from Colombia and Caucaea andigena, a yellow flowered form from the Ecuador.

Caucaea olivaceum Caucaea nubigena
Caucaea phalaenopsis
Caucaea sanguinolenta

ON: Do you consider Caucaea mimetica and Caucaea olivaceum as two different species?
HZ: Yes. Caucaea mimetica has a somewhat different shape and callus from Caucaea olivaceum but could, with future DNA analysis, turn out to be a variety rather than a separate species. Of course, there might be new species to be discovered as more areas become open to field researchers. Colombia is a bit difficult these days, but Ecuador and Peru beckon for new discoveries.

ON: And about Caucaea phalaenopsis?
HZ: Caucaea phalaenopsis is a group found in many different locations in Ecuador and Peru. The plants of this lovely species exhibit enormous pattern and color variation within a population. The flowers not only vary from valley to valley, but from tree to tree--- and sometimes one finds different plants with different patterns on the same tree. If one were to apply species designation to each of the myriad forms, hundreds of names would have to be applied--- perhaps thousands. But it is generally accepted that this varied group is a singular species. I do believe that the same occurs with Caucaea olivaceum and Caucaea nubigena, another variable species with many different color forms.

ON: How did you get the plants for your book Orchids: The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Oncidium?
HZ: When I began working on the book, I had no problem obtaining plants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean by mail or courier services. In the middle of developing the book, CITES arrived one day, bringing with it untold aggravation and heartache. Because of the new importing restrictions, it became necessary for me to travel to different countries in Central and South America, and the Caribbean to legally obtain plants. About the only positive happening that came along with the advent of CITES was that I got to see and study Oncidium species in situ. And over the years, I was fortunate to meet more than two hundred knowledgeable people who generously offered information, plants and flowers. Many of these men and women became good friends, and have remained so to the present.

ON: What might you conclude about the cites?
HZ: While cites has been valuable in preventing international trade in animals, I do not believe that CITES has saved a single orchid plant from extinction. Every orchid person seriously interested in conservation knows that because of unregulated habitat destruction for farming, millions upon millions of orchids have been destroyed along with other plants and trees to provide secondary growth for cattle or to grow food crops. By comparison, orchid collectors have taken a miniscule number of plants out of the field. Even over-collecting is no match to the destruction of orchids that a local farmer can do with a match. Slash and burn agriculture is continuing as you read this, with a blind eye from CITES. I think that the CITES convention got it wrong when they included orchids in their rulings… they should have stayed with animals. Even bottled seedlings are subject to CITES restrictions. And scientists are prohibited to carry or send vouchers or dried and pressed material from country to country without a permit. I believe that all the people in the orchid world should be free of the deadening effect of non-productive, cumbersome, overbearing regulations.

ON: Ecuador is not a very big country however it has many species of orchids, since you live there nowadays, could you tell us how many?
HZ: Ecuador has more species of orchids than any other country in the world. More than 4,000 have been described! Most of the species occur in the higher elevations of the Andes.

ON: Thank you, Harry Zelenko.

Illustrations by Harry Zelenko

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