Background The issue of determining the most appropriate rank for each accepted taxon fuels ongoing controversy throughout systematics. The particularly marked escalation of such issues in modern Australian orchid systematics merits examination, not only because of wider implications in taxonomy but also because of direct effects on studies of comparative biology and conservation management.Scope This paper briefly reviews the causes of recent taxonomic turmoil for Australian orchids and outlines new research opportunities and conservation implications arising from an improved understanding of their molecular phylogenetics.Conclusions DNA sequencing and intensified field work have contributed towards a much improved understanding of Australian orchid systematics. Great progress has been made in discerning monophyletic groups or clades. Fresh interpretations of morphological evolution have been made possible by comparisons with the results of DNA analyses. Significant conceptual shifts from polymorphic species concepts to biological and phylogenetic concepts have also elevated the discovery and description of new species. Consequently, over the past decade, the number of Australian orchid species recognized by taxonomists has risen from approx. 900 to 1200. Similarly, the number of genera recognized by some taxonomists has increased from 110 to 192, resulting in 45% of Australian species/subspecies being assigned a new generic epithet since 2000. At higher taxonomic levels, much of the recent controversy in Australian orchid systematics reflects a divergence in views about where to split and assign formal names within unequivocally monophyletic groups. Differences regarding typification in the case of Caladenia have added additional confusion and complexity. However, new insights into and research opportunities concerning speciation processes in orchids have arisen from the wealth of new data and discrimination of species. Robustly supported molecular analyses of most clades enable comparative biological studies of Australian orchids to be conducted as never before. Outstanding subjects exist for exploring pollination by sexual deception and understanding the intricacies of mycorrhizal relationships and orchid conservation biology.