One of the best books about orchids can now be bought in the United States. It is by one of the world's leading authors on orchids and was printed in Hong Kong, with over 170 beautiful full-size color photographs by one of Japan's most distinguished photographers:

"The Orchid," by P. Francis Hunt, photography by T. Kijima (May-flower-Octopus, 207 printed pages, 10x13 1/2, $40).

For many years, Hunt worked with orchids at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London, before turning to teaching and writing full-time.

He describes the fascination of these flowers to man, their structure, pollination, germination, floral and vegetative features. He explains the classification and distribution of the 18,000 known orchid species and how orchids are cultivated.

Kijima traveled to North and South America, Europe, Australia, Africa, Hawaii, Indonesia, Malaysia and many other centers of orchid cultivation throughout the world for this book. Born in California, brought up in Japan, he has received many prizes for his work and is a director of the Photographic Society of Japan.

Over 95 percent of the orchid family are normal green plants, which obtain their food from the air by means of photosynthesis in the presence of chlorophyll, says the author, but the remaining 700 or so species are saprophytes.

These are plants that obtain their food from the dead and decaying remains of other plants in a manner basically identical to that used by many fungi.

In Australia, two saprophytic orchids have become so specialized that they spend their entire life underground. These subterranean species, which could be snail or mite pollinated, were only discovered when virgin land was first ploughed.

In North American there are about 150 species of orchids occurring from Alaska to southern Florida and California, according to the author. Only one-third of 1 percent of the world's orchids grow in the British Isles and all of these, except two species, occur in much greater quantity on the Continental mainland. Japan has about 2 percent of the world's total and several of these are confined to Japan.

The tropics have over 90 percent of the world's orchids and countries such as Brazil, Borneo, India and New Guinea each have 2,000 or more distinct species.

Orchids are, however; not necessarily much more common in the tropical regions. It is often the cooler parts of Asia and Europe that posses the greater number of orchid plants, albeit from only a relatively few species.

Tropical orchids can be common and even pan-tropical in their distribution but many of them are very rare indeed and may have been seen on only a few occasions.

There are two major reasons for this: First, much of the tropical rain forest region has never been fully explored, and secondly, the plants in the tropics are being destroyed at an alarming rate because of forest and land clearance.

Orchids do not only grow on rain forest trees. There are many species. that are more correctly termed "epilithis," which grow on rocks.

The only places where orchids are not found are in arable land, the hottest and driest deserts, and in the windswept permafrost areas of the tundra.

Although most orchids grown today are artificial hybrids produced by the plant-breeders, the author says, all those depicted in this book are wild species.

Most of those photographed grow naturally only in the warmer parts of the world, but some of the Japanese ones are from cooler regions and can be cultivated in the unheated greenhouse or conservatory.