The exploration of the orchids of southern Africa started in the late 17th and the 18th century when large numbers of dry plant specimens were collected in South Africa and sent to European herbaria to be studied there, particularly to Holland, Germany, Britain and Sweden. Well known collectors of the time were Thunberg, Burchell, Ecklon, Drège and Zeyher.
Their collections were made mainly in the former Cape Province, but also as far afield as Durban (KwaZulu-Natal). Famous names among the European botanists who worked on the southern African material are Burman, Bergius, Linnaeus, Thunberg, Swartz and Sonder.
An important phase in southern African orchidology had started in 1891 when the young German botanist Rudolf Schlechter arrived in Cape Town. Between 1893 and 1897 Schlechter collected extensively in various parts of South Africa, and between 1897 and 1898 he was also able to explore Mozambique.
Schlechter later also travelled extensively in other parts of the world and made important contributions to the study of the orchid floras of several South American countries, Madagascar, the Mascarene islands, New Guinea, and several Indonesian and Pacific Ocean islands.
The first South African-based orchidologist was Harry Bolus of Cape Town. He published complete treatments of the southern African orchids: The Orchids of the Cape Peninsula in 1888, soon followed by the three-volume work Icones Orchidearum Austro-Africanorum Extratropicarum (1893-1896, 1911, 1913). All of these are illustrated by magnificent colour paintings.
Bolus described many new orchids in South Africa, and also built up the Bolus Herbarium and its associated library.
H.P.Linder & H.Kurzweil.Orchids of Southern Africa. Rotterdam: A.A.Balkema, 1999.