Orchid Facts


Oliver Colmenar

Orchids as national/state/county flowers:


                        Ayrshire, UK - Anacamptis morio

                        Banffshire, UK - Epipactis atrorubens

Bedfordshire, UK -  Ophrys apifera

Belize - Prosthechea cochleata, formerly known as Encyclia cochleata, Anacheilium cochleatum, and Epidendrum cochleatum.

Cayman Islands - Myrmecophila thomsoniana (Schomburgkia thomsoniana).

Colombia - Cattleya trianae

                        Costa Rica - Guarianthe skinneri

                        Fife, UK - Corallorrhiza trifida

                   Guatemala - Lycaste skinneri alba

                        Honduras - Rhyncholaelia digbyana

IndonesiaPhalaenopsis amabilis – one of three national flowers. The other two are Jasminum sambac and Rafflesia arnoldii.

Isle of Wight, UK - Anacamptis pyramidalis

Lanarkshire, UK - Epipactis leptochila

Minnesota, USA - Cypripedium reginae

                        Panama - Peristeria elata

Queensland, Australia - Dendrobium phalaenopsis

SingaporeVanda Miss Joachim – a natural hybrid between Vand teres    and Vand hookeriana.

                        Venezuela  Cattleya mossiae

West Lothian, UK - Dactylorhiza fuchsia

Western Isles, UK - Dactylorhiza fuchsii hebridensis

Wiltshire, UK - Neotinea ustulata


Epidendrum (Epi) is the largest new world tropical orchid genus and the second largest in the orchid family. This genus was named by Carolus Linnaeus in 1763. The name comes from two Greek words that translate to “upon trees.” Its name refers to its mostly epiphytic growth habit, although a few are terrestrial and are rarely lithophytic. It has 1,100 species ranging from South Carolina to Argentina. Most are found in the Andes, between 1,000 and 3,000 m.  Epidendrums grow in varied environments from humid jungles to dry tropical forests, from sunny, grassy slopes to cool cloud forests.


Epidendrums come in different sizes and appearances. They have racemose inflorescences, typical of the colorful Epi hybrids we are so familiar with. Some inflorescences occur as corymbs or panicles, like a bouquet of flowers with a flat top. Flowers are small- to medium-sized and not usually showy. Inflorescences are frequently dense, like the flowers on the Epi hybrids. Many have fragrance. Flowers may be borne once on new inflorescences or over the years on the same inflorescence. Seeds are contained in a rounded capsule (correct botanical term for pod), with three ridges.                           

This genus has the following general characteristics:

·                    a slit rostellum, that part which separates the anther from the stigma in the column of the orchid flower.

·                    the lip is adnate to or connected to the column.

·                    4 pollinia (which may sometimes have 2 inferior ones), rarely 2 pollinia.

·                    their stems can be erect, pendent, or creeping, which are characteristically reed-like, simple or branching, or may be pseudobulbs, or thickened stems.


Through the years many genera have been classified and/or reclassified as synonyms to Epidendrum. One example is Prostechea and Anacheilum. These have been due to obvious structural differences. The reported 400 new species described lately may suffer the same fate of reclassification as the ones that preceded them.


Epidendrums readily hybridize with orchids in the Cattleya tribe, hence the genus Epicattleya.  Adamara is a hybrid that has Brassavola, Cattleya, Epidendrum, and Laelia in its parentage. The type species for this genus is Epidendrum nocturnum (the "Night-scented Epidendrum").



Cymbidium(Cym.), also called “boat orchids,” was first described by Olof Swartz in 1799. The name comes from the Greek word kumbos, which means hole or cavity, referring to the shape of the base of the lip. It has 52 species distributed in tropical and subtropical Asia (India, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Borneo) and northern Australia. The large flowered hybrids that people all over the world are familiar with have been bred from species that grow in high altitudes. The species in this genus may occur as epiphytic, lithophytic or terrestrial. Tropical species usually display their flowers in a pendent fashion.


Cymbidiums grow with sympodial growing habit, like the Cattleya. Some can grow to a height of about two feet. The flower stalks of some species can reach the length of three feet. Flower size range from two to four inches. A flower stalk can bear fifteen or more flowers depending on the species. The flower spikes from the base of the youngest mature pseudobulb during the winter season. A plant with many pseudobulbs can have many flowering spikes giving it a spectacular display. Colors for this genus can be white, green, yellowish-green, cream, yellow, brown, pink, and red (with markings of different colors at the same time), but not blue and black. Recent hybrids have produced dramatic dark maroon hues that can almost be considered black. Their waxy flowers usually last ten weeks. They can grow as many as eight long, narrow, green leaves on each pseudobulb. Probably the most number of leaves produced on a pseudobulb in the orchid family.


 They are one of the most popular and desirable of orchids. Cymbidiums make great houseplants. In temperate countries, they are relatively hardy, and can withstand temperatures as low as 45˚F. The flowers make beautiful corsages and are used in floral arrangements. In China, they have been in cultivation for thousands of years. In Bhutan, Cymbidium hookerianum is a delicacy cooked in a spicy curry or stew.


The type species Cymbidium aloifolium.



Cattleya (C) was named after Sir William Cattley by John Lindley in 1824. Sir Cattley successfully cultivated the Cattleya labiata pseudobulbs that were used as packing material for shipment of other orchids.


This genus of about 113 species ranges from Costa Rica to tropical South America. They are widely known for their large, showy and fragrant flowers. For many people, the Cattleya is the idealized picture of the orchids. Older Americans often wax poetically about the wonderful purple Cattleya corsages that were so popular after the WWII. They are extensively used in hybridization with other allied genera: Sophronitis, Laelia, Epidendrum, and Brassavola.


The typical Cattleya flower has three distinct parts:  three narrow sepals, two broad petals and specialized petal called the lip, which tends to be the showiest or the most decorated of all the flower parts. Flowers can number from one to ten on a flower stalk. The flower stalk is born at the top of the pseudobulb right between the fold of the leaf or leaves. Cattleyas can be unifoliate, bearing only one leaf at the top of the pseudobulb (ex. Cattleya trainaei); or bifoliate, two leaves at the top of the pseudobulb (ex. Cattleya skinneri).


Cattleya Hybrids:


Laelia + Cattleya = Laeliocattleya (Lc.)

Brassavola + Cattleya = Brassocattleya(Bc.)

Brassavola + Laelia + Cattleya = Brassolaeliocattleya (Blc.)

Sophronitis + Laelia + Cattleya = Sophrolaeliocattleya (Slc.)

Sophronitis + Laelia + Cattleya  + Brassavola  Potinara = Potinara (Pot.)

Blc. + Epidendrum = Adamara (Adm.)

Slc. + Broughtonia = Hawkinsara (Hknsa.) Brassavola + Broughtonia + Cattleya + Cattleyopsis + Caularthron + 

Epidendrum + Laelia + Sophronitis = Gladysyeeara (Glya.)


The type species is Cattleya labiata.


Orchidaceae (or Orchid family) is the largest family of the flowering plants (Angiospermae). It is a monocot, having only one seed leaf. It belongs to the order of Asparagales (Asparagus).  Its name is derived from the genus Orchis. This genus gets its name from the Greek όρχις orchis, meaning "testicle", from the appearance of the paired subterranean tuberoids.

     The Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew lists 880 genera and nearly 22,000 accepted species, but the exact number is unknown (perhaps as many as 25,000) because of taxonomic disputes. The number of orchid species equals about four times the number of mammal species, or more than twice the number of bird species. It also encompasses about 6–11% of all seed plants. About 800 new orchid species are added each year. Moreover, since the introduction of tropical species in the 19th century, horticulturists have more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars.

     Orchidaceae are cosmopolitan, occurring in almost every habitat apart from deserts and glaciers. The great majority are to be found in the tropics, mostly Asia, South America and Central America. They are found above the Arctic Circle, in southern Patagonia and even on Macquarie Island, close to Antarctica.

Source: Wikipedia


Orchids can be grouped in terms of growth pattern. They can be either be  monopodial or sympodial. Monopodials have a single major stem. Examples of which would be the Vanda, Phalaenopsis, Neofinetia, Renanthera, Rhyncostylis, and Aerides. Sympodials, on the other hand, have multiple growths. Most of the time, sympodials flower on new growth. These are the likes of the Cattleyas, Bulbophyllums, Cymbidiums, Coelogynes and Paphiopedilum.

            They can also be grouped according to where they are growing. Epiphytes are attached to tree limbs, sending out aerial roots to gather moisture and nutrients from the air. Lithophytes are those that grow on rocks. Lithophytes feed off moss, nutrients in rain water, litter, and even their own dead tissue. Terrestrials are ground growing orchids. However, they do not grow exactly in soil. They actually grow on humus or leaf litter accumulated on the forest floor. This material is very porous. This can be duplicated with a fine bark mix in cultivation. Majority of temperate zone orchids are terrestrial. Temperate zone orchids are also deciduous, losing their leaves in the cold season and blooming when the weather warms up.

Source: Wikipedia




The orchid seed is the smallest seed in the world. Wayne’s World (http://waynesword.palomar.edu/index.htm), a website devoted to plant facts and information, states that certain tropical rain forest orchids produce seeds weighing only 35 millionths of an ounce. WW adds that there exist unusual bacterial cells larger than these orchid seeds. The size of the orchid seed makes it possible to have as many as four million seeds in an orchid seed capsule. The correct botanical term for the orchid fruit is capsule. The sheer number of the seeds, which are heavily wind dispersed, ensures that a number of them successfully germinate and reach maturity, thus perpetuating the species.

            However, the orchid seed is structurally different from most seeds we are familiar with, like for example tomato seeds. Whereas, the tomato seed has an endosperm, the food source of the developing embryo, the orchid has not.  Whereas, the tomato seed has an embryo with specifically differentiated parts that naturally develop into the physical parts of a tomato plant (e.g. roots, stem, leaves, etc.), the orchid has not.

            The orchid seed needs very specific conditions for germination to occur in nature. It must establish a symbiotic relationship with a compatible mychorrhizal soil fungus. Take note of the word COMPATIBLE. The fungus supplies the nourishment it needs to develop. Some orchid species become independent of these fungi as they mature. Others may retain this relationship throughout their existence. This relationship explains why orchids are not as common as they should be owing to the number of seeds dispersed in nature.

            I would like to mention an experience related to orchid seeds when Peter and I visited the Palawan State University in the Philippines two years ago. The chief botanist gave us a tour of the botanical garden, talking about the endemic and/or native flora of the island. The Phalaenopsis amabilis is native to the island. Around a big specimen plant attached to a native tree were quite a few plantlets of the amabilis vigorously growing. Curious I asked if they just appeared there.  She responded that each time she found a dry seed capsule; she would rub it on the bark of the tree. Without a doubt, the bark of the tree provided the necessary specific conditions for germination.

            In the early days of orchid cultivation, germinating seeds was done by sowing from the capsule directly around the potting mix of cultivated orchids. Although germination was achieved, it was not until an American scientist, Dr. Lewis Knudson, developed the germinating media that propagation of orchids was revolutionized. His work was based on the earlier work of a French botanist, Noel Barnard. Barnard observed that orchid seeds germinated in moldy fruits that were found around trees. Taking his cue from nature, Barnard experimented on fruits and was able to germinate orchid seeds. The orchid seeds utilized the sugars present in the fruits as food for the developing embryo, which in nature was performed by the fungus. Modern, nurseries, according to Leon Glicenstein (our most recent speaker), use different kinds of fruit as base for germinating media.


There are five things common to all orchid flowers: 1.) a bilateral flower symmetry; 2.) the column; 3.) the rostellum; 4.) two or more pollinia; and 5.) the labellum.

            Modern botanical terms describe the orchid flower symmetry as zygomorphic or irregular. It simply means that there is unique line of symmetry that when the flower is divided vertically in half, each half is a mirror image of the other. That is the same exact symmetry humans have.

            The reproductive system of the orchid flower is pretty specialized. Unlike other flowers where the male and female parts are distinctly apart, the orchid flower’s male and female parts are on the same structure called the column. It is right in the middle of the flower inside the labellum.

            The labellum, or the lip, is a highly modified petal, which can be the showiest or the largest part of the orchid flower. The labellum appears to serve as a platform for pollinating insects. The lip in conjunction with the other petals and sepals of the orchid flower form what is called the corolla of the orchid flower. Orchids are so highly evolved that scent, color, shape or form of the flower suggests the type of pollinating agent they attract. Foul smelling orchids imply that flies are the responsible pollinators. The Orchis flower mimics female bees that male bees attempt copulation, thereby picking up pollen. This pollen gets deposited in another flower achieving cross pollination as the bee again is tricked into mating with another Orchis flower.

            The pollinia (singular pollinium) are small packages containing the pollen. In most flowers, the pollen is produced by the stamens and rubs off when something comes in contact with the flower. Not so with orchids. The pollinia are covered by the anther cap. These may be connected to a small stem called stipe or caudicle. This stem, in turn, may be joined to a sticky disk, called the viscidium. The viscidium readily attaches and detaches to pollinating insects. The pollinia always come in even numbers.

            For some trivia, in 2000, a piece of amber containing an extinct stingless bee was found in the Dominican Republic. The bee was carrying prehistoric orchid pollen. Dating suggested that orchids emerged 76 to 84 million years ago, much earlier than first estimated. This new knowledge implied that toward the end of the dinosaur era, orchids started to flourish.

            The rostellum separates the male part from the female part of the orchid flower. This structure indicates that orchids favor cross-pollination rather than self-pollination. The rostellum makes sure that pollinia get attached to the pollinating agent. Thus, introducing the attached pollen to the next orchid flower it visits.


Vanda (V) is one of the most horticulturally important genera of orchids, especially in the Asian cut flower industry. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word for the type species Vanda tessellata. They are mostly epiphytic, sometimes lithophytic or terrestrial. They are found in Southern Asia to the Himalayas, Southern China, Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Northern Australia. These regions indicate that Vanda species come from cold to tropical places. Most notable of these cold-tolerant species is V. coerulea. This species is used for breeding blue Vanda hybrids. Most of its hybrids can be successfully grown here in the San Francisco Bay Area.


This genus is not big, consisting only of about 50 species (70 according to Jay Pfahl). It has a monopodial growth habit, much like that of the Phalaenopsis, Ascocentrum and Neofinetia. Leaves of some species are flat, typically broad, ovoid leaves (strap-leaves), while others have cylindrical (terete), fleshy leaves that are adapted to dry periods. Some could be miniatures, while others grow to a length of a few meters.


Flowers are typically flat of yellow-brown color with brown markings. The pure white V. javierae is endemic to the Philippines, on the island of Luzon. Vanda dearei is used to breed yellow color in Vanda hybrids. Present-day hybrids have yielded all the colors of the rainbow. The lip has a small spur. Waling-waling (V. sanderiana), a Philippine endemic species does not have a spur. Some taxonomists have classified it under the monotypic (one-species) genus of Euanthe. Vanda flowers last for two to three weeks.


Vandas have been hybridized interspecifically (between species) and intergenerically (between genera) for a long time worldwide. Many of these hybrids have won many awards. The following, taken from Wikipedia, are some of lesser-known Vanda intergenerics:

§                     Andrewara (Arachnis × Renanthera × Trichoglottis × Vanda)

§                     Burkillara (Aerides × Arachnis × Vanda)

§                     Charlieara (Rhynchostylis × Vanda × Vandopsis)

§                     Devereuxara (Ascocentrum × Phalaenopsis × Vanda)

§                     Eastonara (Ascocentrum × Gastrochilus × Vanda)

§                     Fujiora (Ascocentrum × Trichoglottis × Vanda)

§                     Goffara (Luisia × Rhynchostylis × Vanda)

§                     Holttumara (Arachnis × Renanthera × Vanda)

§                     Isaoara (Aerides × Ascocentrum × Phalaenopsis × Vanda)

§                     Joannara (Renanthera × Rhynchostylis × Vanda)

§                     Knudsonara (Ascocentrum × Neofinetia × Renanthera × Rhynchostylis × Vanda)

§                     Leeara (Arachnis × Vanda × Vandopsis)

§                     Maccoyara (Aerides × Vanda × Vandopsis)

§                     Nobleara (Aerides × Renanthera × Vanda)

§                     Onoara (Ascocentrum × Renanthera × Vanda × Vandopsis)

§                     Pehara (Aerides × Arachnis × Vanda × Vandopsis)

§                     Raganara (Renanthera × Trichoglottis × Vanda)

§                     Sanjumeara (Aerides × Neofinetia × Rhynchostylis × Vanda)

§                     Trevorara (Arachnis × Phalaenopsis × Vanda)

§                     Vandewegheara (Ascocentrum × Doritis × Phalaenopsis × Vanda)

§                     Wilkinsara (Ascocentrum × Vanda × Vandopsis)

Yonezawaara (Neofinetia × Rhynchostylis × Vanda)


Dendrobium (Den) is the third largest genus in the orchid family, containing about 1,200 species. The name was derived from two Greek words dendron (tree) and bios (life) simply translated “tree-living”, or essentially epiphyte.  They can be found in the south, east and southeast Asia, including Australia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands and New Zealand. They occur as epiphytic, or occasionally, lithophytic in very diverse habitats, ranging from the high-altitude Himalayas, to lowland tropical forests and even to the Australian desert.


The genus is characterized by sympodial growth of pseudobulbs (like that of the Cattleyas). The pseudobulbs of some species grow to a few centimeters in length, while others grow to more than three feet long. The mostly reed-like stems grow upright or pendent. In some species the ovate leaves grow alternately through the length of the stem. In others, the leaves are bunched up towards the top of the stem. Flowers are borne at the angle between the stem and the leaf, described as axillary in botanic terms. Inflorescences may carry one to four flowers, in some, to hundreds in the case of Dendrobium kingianum. Some flower on leafless canes, in the case of deciduous species, which carry their leaves for two years. Some species’ flowers could last for months.


They usually follow a cycle of growth during the summer, rest in winter, sends out buds in spring and with a rapid root growth soon after. Dendrobiums lend itself to asexual propagation, either by divison or keikis.


Dendrobiums are known to remove common household air contaminants. In Chinese traditional medicine, some species are grown for medicinal properties. Some species are also national, regional, city or provincial emblems. Several species have appeared in stamps and currency.


The type species is Dendrobium moniliforme.



Paphiopedilum (Paph.) is a genus in the orchid family that is widely hybridized and cultivated around the world. It is more commonly referred to as “Paphs” among orchid enthusiasts. Its name was derived from two words: Paphos (a city in Cyprus) and an ancient Greek word, pedilon (slipper, referring to the shape of the pouch). Although partially named after a Cypriot city, Paphs cannot be found there. This is because Paphs were mixed up with the Cypripediums in earlier taxonomy. The genus was established by Ernst Hugo Heinrich Pfitzer in 1886, but it was only in 1959 that the genus was accepted as a valid group.


Unlike its temperate-growing cousins, the Paphs are found in countries with relatively warmer climes. They are found in South China, India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. There are 80 accepted species according to Wikipedia. Most of the species are terrestrials, growing on humus layers on the forest floor.  Some are true epiphytes (growing on trees) and a few are lithophytes (on rocks). They have a sympodial growing habit, like the Cattleyas. But, unlike the Cattleyas, they have no pseudobulbs. Each shoot has several leaves, which can be both round and wide, or long and narrow. Some species have a mottled pattern on their leaves. It is generally believed that mottled-leafed species are warmer growing that plain-leafed ones.


Paphs only bloom from new shoots. Each shoot blooms only once. There are three general groups of Paphs: the uniflorals (bearing one or, rarely, two blooms on a flower stem), multiflorals (bearing two to as many as six flowers per spike), and the sequential bloomers (those that bloom in succession on a single spike). Some species bloom from a single small shoot. Paph. charlesworthii  is an example of a small blooming Paph. Others take at least five years to bloom. Paph. rothschildianum is an example of the type that needs to get big to mature and bloom.


In cultivation, Paphs prefer temperatures we humans enjoy, much like the Phals. However, they need more shade than Phals., due to the fact that these orchids grow on forest floors rather than high up the tree branches. Species Paphs need much humidity to mimic the conditions in the forest. Hybrid Paphs are easier to grow than their parent species.


Paph insigne – type species.

(Photo courtesy of IOSPE)