The orchid family is an incredibly large and diverse plant family, with more than 25,000 different species and more than 150,000 registered hybrids. The variation within a single species can be significant, let alone across the entire family. But with a little practice, knowledge, and observation, almost anyone can identify the most common types of orchids. Identifying one orchid from the next will be helpful in understanding what conditions they prefer and how to grow and flower them well. Happy growing!
Some orchids, such as Neottia and Corallorhiza, lack chlorophyll, so are unable to photosynthesise. Instead, these species obtain energy and nutrients by parasitising soil fungi through the formation of orchid mycorrhizas. The fungi involved include those that form ectomycorrhizas with trees and other woody plants, parasites such as Armillaria, and saprotrophs. These orchids are known as myco-heterotrophs, but were formerly (incorrectly) described as saprophytes as it was believed they gained their nutrition by breaking down organic matter. While only a few species are achlorophyllous holoparasites, all orchids are myco-heterotrophic during germination and seedling growth, and even photosynthetic adult plants may continue to obtain carbon from their mycorrhizal fungi.
The amount of drainage your pot has will depend on the size of the pot, with larger pots requiring more drainage holes than smaller pots. Since orchids prefer to grow in smaller pots, a good rule of thumb is to make sure the pot has 4-8 holes if it’s 4 inches (10 centimeters) or so, while larger orchid pots (around 6 inches or 15 centimeters) should have 8-12 holes for drainage.
Mist your orchid. Since orchids thrive in humidity, misting your orchid is a great way to keep it healthy, especially since it prevents the roots from drying out. Fill a spray bottle with water, then spritz the plant a few times a day. How often you mist the orchid depends on the environment where you live. Drier environments will require more misting, while damp climates may require misting daily.
A study in the scientific journal Nature has hypothesised that the origin of orchids goes back much longer than originally expected. An extinct species of stingless bee, Proplebeia dominicana, was found trapped in Miocene amber from about 15-20 million years ago. The bee was carrying pollen of a previously unknown orchid taxon, Meliorchis caribea, on its wings. This find is the first evidence of fossilised orchids to date and shows insects were active pollinators of orchids then. This extinct orchid, M. caribea, has been placed within the extant tribe Cranichideae, subtribe Goodyerinae (subfamily Orchidoideae). An even older orchid species, Succinanthera baltica, was described from the Eocene Baltic amber by Poinar & Rasmussen (2017).
The characteristic that makes these different than many other orchids is their shape, which is triangular, blocky and compact, or thin, whiskery, and elongated. They bloom in the summer and require certain temperatures and humidity levels, so you should research them before you decide to purchase them. They can be tricky to grow and therefore, they are better for people who are more experienced in the garden, and they come in colors such as yellow-orange and have leaves that are a beautiful shade of green.
Some orchids have water-storing organs, and some do not. If you have a type of orchid that has the ability to store water, such as cattleyas or oncidiums, you should allow the orchid to completely dry out before watering. If you have a type of orchid that does not have water-storing organs, such as phalaenopsis or paphiopedilums, you should water the orchid before it is entirely dry.
Cymbidium carry tall stems with many flowers that have a more typical orchid shape. They are easily identified by their grassy leaves, and they readily form large clumps. Most common are the cool-flowering types, which need to experience a cooler winter (nights in the 40s for some time in the fall) in order to initiate flowering. Once the flowers open, they can last for up to two months or more, especially in a cool environment. These are very showy and rewarding plants, and a plant in a six-inch pot can carry three stems with 15 or more flowers each, depending on the type.
To give you a better feel for how orchid subfamilies, tribes, and genera are interconnected, we created a compendium of popular American orchids. It plots over 100 “local” genera of orchids so you can see just how impressive and expansive this family is. You may be surprised that some of these vibrant, exotic looking orchids exist in your own backyard! Want to learn more about flowers and plants? Check out our other compendiums featuring types of roses and types of desert plants.
The den-phal type are warm growing year round and do, just by happenstance, bear flowers similar in appearance to the genus Phalaenopsis. They can be distinguished by plant habit (most Dendrobium have pseudobulbs that resemble tall canes) and flower shape. Den-phals have a spur at the back of the lip; some are more pronounced, others less. They are also borne on very strong upright to barely arching stems. Interesting to note, den-phals can rebloom on old canes.
Orchids come in different sizes. I have a miniature phal in a 3-inch pot. This orchid needs watering more often than the larger ones in 6″ deep pots. An orchid in a larger pot will need watering less often, but will need more water quantity wise. The material of the pot will also make a difference. Those in plastic will dry out a bit slower than those planted in porous terra cotta.
The medial petal, called the labellum or lip (6), which is always modified and enlarged, is actually the upper medial petal; however, as the flower develops, the inferior ovary (7) or the pedicel usually rotates 180°, so that the labellum arrives at the lower part of the flower, thus becoming suitable to form a platform for pollinators. This characteristic, called resupination, occurs primitively in the family and is considered apomorphic, a derived characteristic all Orchidaceae share. The torsion of the ovary is very evident from the longitudinal section shown (below right). Some orchids have secondarily lost this resupination, e.g. Epidendrum secundum.
Orchid stems are also specialized into what are called pseudobulbs. These are basically expanded stems that allow the plant to store excess water and food. The roots of epiphytic (tree-dwelling) orchids have a special outer layer of dead cells called velamen. Because orchids metabolize slowly in order to not outpace their resources, the roots also absorb slowly, meaning that they need help catching water as it passes by. The velamen cells catch and fill with water as it passes by so that the true root (the core of the root structure) has ample time to access as much water as it can. Velamen is silver-white in color, but becomes transparent when wet, so that when the root is wet it turns green as you are able to see through to the inner structures of the root that contain chlorophyll.
The potting mixture, or growing medium, for a phalaenopsis orchid should be good at both absorbing water and providing airflow to the roots of the plant. Therefore, consider using media such as tree bark, coconut coir, clay pellets, perlite, pumice pebbles, and sphagnum moss, either on their own or blended together. If you live in a humid climate, choose a courser potting mixture that dries quickly and provides the best drainage. On the other hand, those who live in a dry climate should use a finer medium that will dry more slowly and hold more moisture.
Do a finger test. This is the best way to determine whether an orchid needs more water. Stick your pinky finger into the potting mix, taking care not to disturb the orchid's roots. If you don't feel any moisture, or you feel just a little, it's time to water the orchid. If you feel moist potting mix right away, give it more time. When in doubt, you should wait an extra day.
The orchid plant is also unique in its morphology (form or structure). We can begin with the leaves and work our way down to the roots. The leaves of many orchids in cultivation are unique in that they are specifically designed for water conservation (as is true for almost every orchid structure). They have a heavy waxy leaf coating and specialized stomata (openings through which the leaf “breathes”) that help to prevent water loss during transpiration (the act of the plant “breathing”). Many orchids utilize CAM photosynthesis as well, which in essence means that the plants collect materials during the day and then process them at night.