Basic Orchid Glossary

Frequently Asked Questions

Basics of Orchid Names

Paphiopedilum Jim Kie 'Springwater' HCC/AOS. Photo © 2011 G. Allikas

Understanding orchid names enhances the pleasure of this hobby. Initially, it is easy to talk with friends using common names like moth orchids and lady's-slipper orchids. But eventually one needs to come to grips with botanical names. Though perhaps intimidating at first, mastering the simple Latin of scientific names will eliminate the twist from the tongue and enable everyone to talk about orchids with confidence.

For example: Paphiopedilum Jim Kie 'Springwater' HCC/AOS, tells four things about this plant: •It is a member of the genus Paphiopedilum
• It is a hybrid (or grex) named Jim Kie
• 'HSpringwater' is its clonal name
• And it has received a Highly Commended Certificate (HCC) from the American Orchid Society for its flowers, which scored from 75 to 79 points on a 100-point scale.

Parts of a Name
To elucidate an orchid's name, pick up a catalog or plant label from one of your plants. Most likely, the name will consist of at least two words. The first word is the name of the genus (plural: genera). It is usually printed in italics because, as Latin, it is a foreign language, and begins with a capital letter (Cattleya, Epidendrum, Zygopetalum). Botanists abbreviate generic names with the first letter (such as C. for Cattleya and E. for Epidendrum), while horticulturists often use short abbreviations, such as Epi. for Epidendrum and Phal. for Phalaenopsis.

Within each genus there may be dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on a theme. Taxonomists recognize these species by giving them individual names called specific epithets (these usually begin with a lower-case letter and are also in italics). A specific epithet may indicate place of origin (costaricensis, from Costa Rica), the person who found the orchid (besseae, for Libby Besse), a characteristic of the orchid (glabra, for smooth) or honor an individual (garayi, for Leslie Garay). Together, the genus name and specific epithet comprise the species name, and often impart a bit of information. Hence Masdevallia coccinea is a species with red flowers (coccinea means red) and Paphiopedilum philippinense was discovered in the Philippines.

Some species may exhibit certain characteristics with additional variation which a taxonomist may recognize by assigning a subspecies, varietal or form name. These begin with a lower-case letter, are in italics and are the third name in sequence. The flowers of Phragmipedium besseae are typically red, but a variant with yellow flowers has been named Phragmipedium besseae forma (usually abbreviated simply as f.) flavum.

The Names of Hybrids
A major attraction of orchids is the diversity of hybrids available to growers. Hybrids have names, too. When a hybrid is made, the breeder, or his or her representative, assigns a grex or group name that applies to all of the hybrid progeny. A grex name begins with a capital letter and is in Roman type. When Paphiopedilum niveum was crossed with Paphiopedilum tonsum, all progeny were given the name Paphiopedilum Olivia.

Since this cross was registered in 1898, some plants with exceptionally fine flowers have been observed and assigned cultivar names to distinguish them. When researching Paph. Olivia in the literature, one might see the cultivar names `Lorelei', HCC/AOS, or `Casa Luna', AM/AOS, following the grex name.

Cultivar names may be applied to hybrids (Paph. Olivia `Lorelei', HCC/AOS) as well as species (Paphiopedilum appletonianum `Seascape', HCC/AOS). A cultivar name begins with a capital letter, is in Roman type and set within single quotation marks. When vegetatively propagated -- through divisions, keikis (offshoots) or mericlones -- all derivatives of a cultivar will be genetically identical and possess the same cultivar name. This permits hobbyists to know exactly what to expect from a plant they purchase bearing this name.

Glancing at the clonal names above reveals some extra letters -- such as AM/AOS and HCC/AOS -- following the plants' names. These indicate an award, in this case granted by the American Orchid Society (AOS). These awards may be given to both species and hybrids. The letters before the slash are an abbreviation for the award; AM is an Award of Merit, HCC a Highly Commended Certificate. The letters following the slash indicate the association that bestowed the award. Awards are given by several organizations, including the American Orchid Society (AOS), The Royal Horticultural Society, the South Florida Orchid Society and the Honolulu Orchid Society (HOS). An award imparts prestige, and, generally, a higher price.

A thorough discussion of orchid nomenclature is presented in The Handbook on Orchid Nomenclature and Registration, prepared by The Handbook Committee of the International Orchid Commission with the cooperation of The Royal Horticultural Society.

Arguing the correct pronunciation of potato and tomato is nothing compared to some of the heated debates surrounding the proper way to pronounce botanical Latin. It's easier if you remember that, with few exceptions all letters are pronounced. You will often hear names pronounced somewhat differently than indicated as a result of regional differences. There are also pronunciations that are not technically correct but have found their way into common useage. The common pronunciation, stan-HOPE-ee-ah rather than the technically correct stan-HOPE-ah for Stanhopea is an example. This pronunciation has no doubt evolved because of the "pronounce every letter rule", although then it would sound more like stan-HOPE-AY-ah. With a modicum of effort, orchid names become a part of the enthusiastic orchidist's vocabulary. The key to success: talk with fellow orchidists at meetings, shows, nurseries and regional judging sessions. Listen to others. Take the time to practice yourself. Invest in one of several guides that offer invaluable advice for pronouncing names, and, frequently, their meaning too. If you are an AOS member, Orchids A to Z provides audio files of the spoken names of genera so you can hear how they are pronounced.