The family Orchidaceae is one of the most numerous in terms of species in the plant world. The majority are small and not particularly attractive, but a few are just the opposite. There are upwards of 260 species in the Australian Tropics, occupying a variety of ecological niches from mangroves and rainforests to savannah woodlands and heath on sandy flats. They grow as epiphytes or as terrestrials. Tropical Australia lies close to New Guinea and the Indonesian Islands which are both centres of distribution of orchids on a world scale.
Before James Cook's expedition in the Endeavour, nothing was known of the orchids of the Australian tropics. The three species which Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected at the Endeavour River and a handful of others collected by Robert Brown on the Investigator remained the sum total of knowledge until settlements were established on the northern and eastern coasts in the 1860s. After that there was a rush of collectors who ranged from explorers to amateur naturalists to professional scientists collecting specimens and sending them to botanists based in the southern cities of Australia.
With Strange Device tells the stories of the collectors who often had to deal with attacks by the indigenous people who, naturally enough, resented the newcomers and with hardships such as lack of supplies and flooded creeks and rivers. Some expeditions ended in tragedy and there are many interesting tales of the troubles encountered. All the orchids of Tropical Australia are listed along with the first collector, the date and locality. The title With Strange Device refers to the unique floral structure of the orchids as described by Archibald Meston in a poem penned on Mt Bellenden Ker in 1893 about F.M. Bailey the Queensland Government Botanist:
"The shades of night were falling fast,
As o’er the mountain summit passed
A botanist man, extremely nice,
Who bore a plant with strange device,