Identify Your Orchid

Identify Your Orchid

First, Identify Your Orchid

Have More Fun with Orchids Knowing Basic Names

Before you can determine how to care for your orchid, you must first be able to identify what kind of orchid you have. The reason is practical: your success as a grower will be helped a lot by knowing some basic names. Locating information on your plants can depend on correctly recognizing its type. Getting to what you need without wading through reams of technical and specialist information will be helped along by knowing the type of orchid you have. This article will show you some of the most popular orchid genus and their names to help you identify your orchids.

Knowing some names can bring you personal satisfaction: being able to communicate about your orchids can lead to greater knowledge and, thus, greater satisfaction. Part of the fun of orchids is talking to other growers about mutual experiences and learning from the errors of others. Vendors will like knowing what type you are interested in because they can guide you to better choices for your collection. Orchid judges know a lot of species by their scientific names, but for most hybrids, they just refer to their type (until they get the detailed information they need to make a judgment). In other words, the type of an orchid goes a long way in communicating. Go to a local society and ask about or comment on an orchid type by name and you will get the ball rolling on a real conversation.

Learning names can be daunting: the scientific naming system is complex and, to everyone's chagrin, changing. This is one of the most intimidating aspects about orchids. There are a lot of names because there are a lot of orchids. There are more orchid species than any flowering plant except the daisy family. And the number of hybrids from these species is remarkably large.

First of all, learn the name of any orchid you own. You need this to be sure you are providing the right growing conditions for the plant. Secondly, learn to recognize major types of orchids.


Although less common as pot plants, cattleyas or hybrids from the Cattleya (CAT-lee-ah) family may very well have caught your eye - or nose! Many of these plants have delightful fragrances and can be irresistible. Cattleyas come in many sizes, shapes and colors on both big and small plants but can be recognized by their generally symmetrical flowers.

Cattleyas were at one time the standard by which all orchids were judged. Remarkable in size, richly colored, with lips large and redolent with markings, these were the choice for corsages. Now, with careful breeding, size has been cut down and the number of flowers increased.


These orchdis are prized for their long-lasting sprays of flowers, used especially as cut flowers or for corsages in the spring. In California, the genus Cymbidium (sym-BID-ee-um) is favored as a house and garden plant. Cymbidiums have large lily-like leaves that can be broad or narrow like this warmth-tolerant Cymbidium Golden Elf.

Oriental species are renowned for their fragrance and subtle charm. Most are terrestrial in their native habitat. Often they are grown in decorative deep pots as their root systems tend to grow down rather than branch.


Although Dendrobium (den-DROH-bee-um) is a very large and wide-spread genus, several types have impacted the pot plant market. These are popular because they are very floriferous and flowers can last several weeks.

Dendrobiums come in an amazing array of sizes, colors, and growing conditions. There are about 1500 species, mainly from tropical Asia and Australia. The common ones have relatively tall canes and take abundant light. They produce lovely sprays of flowers. The most easily available ones that are sold in big-box stores are hybrids of what are called phalaenopsis "types" like that shown at left because they vaguely resemble phalaenopsis.


Plants in the Oncidium family often have flowers that resemble dancing ladies. Oncidiums are extremely popular because they lend themselves to indoor culture. The flowers are also long lived and plants can be found in big box stores and garden centers. Some examples look like these to the right.

Many plants in this group have very complex intergeneric backgrounds and a wide range of colors and shapes. The best hybrids produce colorful sprays which are fragrant. From the New World, native to Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and Florida!


Another popular house-plant genus is Paphiopedilum (paff-ee-oh-PED-ih-lum) or lady slipper orchid. Like Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum plants have long-lived flowers. Paphiopedilums are the most easily recognized because of their characteristic slipper-like pouch and look like that pictures at left.

There are closely related orchids with pouches, some of which are native to North America. The ones available commonly for sale are paphiopedilums, however. Spotted, warted, hairy, shiny, or striped, they are all intriguing and extremely popular as house plants, particularly in Europe but also in North America.


Most people who have just a few orchids will have a "moth orchid" or Phalaenopsis (fail-eh-NOP-sis) like the plant shown at right.

Phalaenopsis orchids have become the standard for orchids because they have become so widely available and inexpensive. Their classic presentation, in long, arching sprays with one flower just touching the next, is seen in luxury settings (in magazine, hotel lobbies, etc.) The white ones are very popular in weddings. As pot-plants, they are sold in all sorts of places, from grocery stores to high-end florist shops. They do very well in home conditions.


In Florida Vanda (VAN-duh) orchids and hybrids made from vandas are very popular because of their rainbow of colors and frequency of flowering. Many of the species are very fragrant and the flowers long lasting. Vandas look like this Vanda (Euanthe) sanderiana shown at right.

Many of the scientific names of orchids are real tongue-twisters. Fortunately, the main types are not so difficult and you should learn to say them. Do not be over-concerned with absolutely correct pronunciation. First of all, in the English-speaking world there are differences in pronunciation. More importantly, if you just get the beginning approximately right, orchidists will know what you mean.

Depending on your location, you may want to be sure you know the local popular orchids. As your experience grows, you will naturally learn others.

Did You Know?

Vanilla comes from an orchid! Vanilla planifolia is known as the "orchid of commerce". It was first used by the Aztecs to flavor chocolate. Vanilla beans are the dried seed pods of this orchid.
Reinikka, Merle, A History of the Orchid, Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 1995.

Pictured: Vl. planifolia. Photo © Greg Allikas

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