Orchids are an incredibly unique and fascinating group of plants. Many people can identify a Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) or Cattleya (the old corsage orchids), but the question often is asked, “What makes an orchid an orchid?” Orchids have some morphological (physical) traits that make them stand out from other plant families. In orchids, many of their floral parts come in groups of three. There are three sepals, which are the outer petals; these are what you see when you look at an unopened bud. There are also three petals, but in orchids one of the petals has been specialized into a labellum, or lip. This is usually the bottommost petal, and it helps to attract the pollinator to the reproductive organ. In orchids the reproductive organ, known as the column, combines both the male and female parts in one structure.
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.
The Orchideae tribe is the largest tribe within the Orchidoideae subfamily, and contains a variety of flower forms. Flowers in this tribe dominate the orchid flora in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, though they can also be found in East Asia. These orchids usually have a three-lobed lip without a basal spur, prominent caudicles, and erect anthers.
This type of orchid has over 200 species and has a star-shaped appearance. Most of them have small- to medium-sized blooms and come in colors such as yellow, white, or light green, although most of them are white. The flower has a wonderful fragrance, needs even amounts of water, and prefers temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, mainly because they are not a bulb plant and therefore cannot store water. They also look beautiful in hanging baskets and pots.
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.