The Bulbophyllum orchid genus is the largest in the Orchidaceae family, with over 1800 species, making it the third largest genus of plants. (Taxonomists will probably eventually split it into several smaller genera, but with so many types of orchids it's a massive undertaking!) They differ widely in appearance, but all have a single leaf emerging from the top of the pseudobulb, flower stems coming from the bottom of the pseudobulb, and a hinged lip designed to tip insects against the column. Many are pollinated by flies, and stink like dung or rotting carcasses, which is a great conversation starter and gives you bragging rights for putting up with it! (They don't all stink, fortunately.) The rhizomes wander all over the place and often branch freely, so it's easy to grow an impressive specimen.
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.
Catasetum orchids, along with the other members of the Catasetum alliance, have big, thick pseudobulbs with an attractive fan of thin leaves along their length. The flowers can be very showy, but are unisexual, so that male and female flowers look different. Lighting affects which kind appears. They need a dry rest after flowering when the leaves drop.
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).
Phalaenopsis, the Moth Orchid, is one of the most commonly available and easiest to grow orchid genera. It is an especially good choice for beginners to orchid growing. They have large, showy flowers that come in a wide variety of colors. Most species have several flowers per stem, but some have more, and others have as few as one or two. There are a great many hybrid varieties on the market.
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.
Once you develop more than a passing interest in orchids, you will quickly notice how diverse this exotic plant family is. Encompassing genera that yield both the vanilla you love to bake with and fragrances you love to wear, each flower has unique characteristics and care requirements. Compare your plants to some of the most commonly cultivated orchids to help you determine what type of orchid you are growing.