How to Find Out Anything About Orchids

A Little History

In 1794 there were 15 different orchids in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew near London, England. By 1830, they had become a prized collectible even outdistancing the frenzied tulip obsession. Explorers delved into the forests and jungles of the world to dig up and bring back ever more exotic orchids to England and Europe in general. At auctions, the new, the rare, the must have orchid could sell for over $500 a plant.

Whole populations indiscriminately collected. Most died before they got to England and many more died in the hot, wet glasshouses of the day. "Orchidmania" and the importation of plants peaked in the late 1800's. After World War I, imports from the wild decreased markedly. Nurseries were established in countries of origin and hybridization began. After World War II, imports from nurseries to the U.S. took hold and led to the development of the commercial orchid growers in the United States.

Today, hybridization and meristem culture (cloning) have become a science as well as an opportunity for the hobbyist. An endless array of plants is available. At the same time many orchids in the wild are endangered and the number of species available to collectors diminishes.

Orchid Family Relations

Orchids, family Orchidaceae (Wikipedia), are one of the two largest families of flowering plants (the other is the aster-daisy-sunflower). They are found almost everywhere and are very diverse. Orchids are monocots, one of 2 classes of flowering plants (the other is the dicots). Monocots share several common characteristics, including petals are in multiples of 3 and leaves have parallel veination. Orchids have 3 sepals and 3 petals, one of which is the lip (labellum). A column which holds the pollinia (waxy clumps of pollen) and the stigma (where a pollinium ends up).

The biological classification system is hierarchical, from kingdom (Plantae, plants) down to family (Orchidaceae), genus (for example: Cattleya) and species (intermedia). The Orchid family has over 800 genuses, some large like Bulbophyllum (2,000) and Epidendrum (1,500) some with only a single species. Most species orchids will have a tag that identifies the genus and species (or "sp." if unknown). you may also hear the term alliance (example: Cattleya alliance) which is a group of closely allied genuses. Originally plants were classified by the structure of their flowers, flowers with similar structure are the same species or genus. in the past decade DNA has superseded morphology, leading to many species or genuses being reclassified (Sophronitis is now in the genus Cattleya). Tags may show the new or more likely the old name, old habits die hard. Resources like the Kew monocot list allow you to determine the correct name.

Keeping up can be a problem. But now with over 800 genera and over 28,000 species, don't feel badly about not being able to recognize all those plants you see at shows or on the plant tables. And that does not even take into account the 100,000+ orchid hybrids.

What is in a Name?

Correct plant identification is important to understanding what kind of environment needs to be provided for a plant to flourish. Hopefully, every plant you get will have the correct name of the plant on a tag on it (even better, not just the right name but the dates of blooming and repotting). There are formal rules for naming plants. An individual plant originally grown in the wild (species may have variations and can hybridize in the wild) is named according to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Next time you look at a plant identification tab on one of your orchids look for the following and understand the place of your plant in the plant world better.

Species Naming

  1. Genus comes first and starts with a capital letter and is written in italics. Most tags will not have anything printed in italics though.
  2. The Species name comes second (also known as the specific epithet) and starts with a lower case letter and is written in italics
  3. A varietal epithet may come 3rd (a name for a distinctive population within a species) is preceded by var., is italicized or underlined and does not begin with a capital letter.
  4. A cultivar epithet (clonal name) may come 4th, This is a name for a particular plant and it's divisions. The name is not in Latin, is not in italics the first letter is capitalized and it is in quotation marks.
  5. Awards if any.

So, for example, a plant might be named Dendrobium speciosum var. hillii where the genus is Dendrobium, the species or specific epithet is speciosum and the variety or varietal epithet is hillii. If there were a cultivar it might be "Jane Doe" but this name is not maintained if two plants of the same cultivar are crossed.

Sources for Identifying Species

Hybrid Naming

  1. The first name is the genus name which is italicized and the first letter is capitalized. However in many cases plants from two or more genera are crossed, in which case a new name will have been given for that kind of cross. For example Blc. For Brassolaeliocattleya
  2. The second name is the Grex name, Grex indicating registered hybrid name. It is not Latin, starts with a capital and is not italicized.
  3. The 3rd name is the cultivar epithet which is in quotation marks, is not italicized and the first letter is capitalized. These are generally not given to superior clones of horticultural significance.
  4. Finally, the lineage delineation can be given, especially if the cross is not registered.
  5. Awards if any.

So, for example you might have Blc. Acapana 'Miles' (LC. Grande X Greenheart)

Sources for Identifying Hybrids

In the early part of the 20th century, Sanders and Sons of St. Albans, England saw a need to develop a registry of known hybridized orchids. In the 1960s the Royal Horticultural Society took over the registry role from Sanders, becoming the international registration authority. You can search RHS Orchid Registry by parentage or by Grex. The list is updated quarterly with about 3,000 new hybrids added each year. There are more than 100,000 hybrids listed. Some of the hybrids involve more than 20 distinct species and up to 9 genera.


Orchid societies around the world have judging programs to help promote better flowers, also people are competitive and everyone wants to be recognized as having the "best" plant. The American Orchid Society AOS runs the largest awards program around, but there are others you may see awards from the Cymbidium Society of America, or the orchid societies in Japan, Australia, etc. awards are usually written as award/awarder like AM/AOS for Award of Merit/American Orchid Society.

The AOS awards are:

Orchid Reproduction, Propagation/Replication (in other words, sex)

In the wild, each species of orchid is pollinated by a specific bee, fly, moth, bird, etc. that is attracted to it. After the pollination has occurred, seeds develop and are distributed by the wind. Some land in a propitious environment to develop. Mycorrhizal fungus (symbiotic with the roots) is necessary for germination and growth of orchid seeds in the wild.

For humans to replicate the process is easier said than done. It has taken a lot of experimental trial and error work to get to a point of reliable, efficient plant production. You cannot just harvest some seeds and plop them in some dirt, bark, fungus or other plant medium.

You know you have an orchid if you find at its center a column with both male and female reproduction organs fused to the column. Typically an orchid has three outermost parts called the sepals. In most orchids the sepals are plainer and thinner than the innermost parts called the petals. The three innermost part of the orchid are called petals. The petals tend to be showier, ruffled and bigger than the sepals, particularly so the central bottom petal which is generally known as the lip or labellum. The lip is the most elaborate and colorful part of most orchids. The lip sepals and petals are attached to the base of the column. The lip in particular appears to radiate from the column. At the tip of the column is a cap. The clumps of pollen are in that cap. There is a depression that contains a sticky mass below the cap, the stigma which is the female organ receptor. The stem of the flower is where the seed pod develops after pollination with the anther contained in the cap.

Reproduction au Naturel

Any grower, including you, can take the place of a natural pollinator by putting pollen on a stigma. If you place the pollen of an orchid on its own stigma, odds are you will get a plant that looks very much like the parent. If you put the pollen of one plant into the stigma of another plant, you are on your way to hybridizing a new flower.

Typically, you will have to wait for a seed pod to develop and ripen, perhaps 6 months or more. You will then pluck the seed from the pod and store it in a cool dry place in a flask containing agar jelly. The seeds germinate in the flasks for about a year before they are transferred to pots. Then you will have to nurture the plant for about 3 to 5 years before you can expect to see if it will flower and what the flower will look like.

Most hobbyists grow from seedlings only when the hybridization bug has bitten them. There are a lot of books and other sources of information on hybridization. Particularly useful to the 'would be' hybridizer is information on the compatibility of different genera and inheritance characteristics.

Generally, hybridizers have a goal in mind, they don't just cross two plants for the fun of it. A hybridizer's goals might include creating a smaller more compact plant or a pendulous type flower spike, or a specific colored flower.

Reproduction Through Cloning

Orchids were first cloned using meristem culture in the 1960s. The apical meristem is removed from young new growth in an orchid. The very tiny shoot is dissected, put into a liquid in a sterile flask and then agitated. The agitation keeps the apical meristem from developing a root. Instead, the apical meristem multiplies into many embryo plants that are then divided. The subsequent plants are exact replicas of the parent. Clearly, this cloning process has been a boon to the commercial orchid growing business.


For most of us, replicating one of our existing plants will be done by division. As a plant matures we have a choice of letting it continue grow bigger to become a specimen plant or dividing it into two or more plants. Dividing a plant is easy even if intimidating the first time you do it and you do not have to wait 5 to 7 years to see your plants flower.

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