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!
Grammatophyllum speciosum is the largest type of orchid and grows up to three meters in height. The world’s most expensive orchid, Shenzhen Nongke, sold for $200,000 at an auction in 2005 and is named after the university that developed it for eight years. Sri Lanka’s Kadupul flower, on the other hand, is considered the most priceless because it blooms just once a year in the night and withers before dawn breaks.
Did you know there are more than 20,000 types of orchids in the world? That’s more than four times the number of mammal species! While most are found in tropical rainforests and grasslands in far off places, a fair amount are also native to the United States. A favorite in homes worldwide, the “Orchidaceae” family features blooms that are vibrant, tropical and fragrant.
If your Catasetum orchid leaves begin to yellow and drop off, do not despair; this deciduous orchid loses its leaves naturally during winter dormancy. There is much variation in appearance between Catasetum species, but one feature they all have in common is the trait of producing male or female flowers, which bear little resemblance to each other. The male flowers have an anatomical trigger that forcefully ejects pollen onto visiting bees.
Also called Cockleshell orchids, they have no fragrance, but they do bloom for several consecutive months, making them appealing for people who want color in their garden for long periods of time. The Encyclia orchid has dangling petals and sepals, which is why some people say it resembles an octopus. It thrives when planted on an orchid mount because this simulates the epiphytic growing conditions found in the wild, and it comes in colors such as yellow-white with purple throats at the top.
So you want to grow an orchid? There are tens of thousands of orchid varieties to choose from, in almost every color of the rainbow. Some exotic versions are rarely seen outside specialty shows, while others are readily available to the novice grower. Unlike the common stereotype, many types of orchids will thrive as houseplants, and don’t need to be kept in a greenhouse. The orchid you’ll choose to grow will depend on the environment in your home, as well as the way the plant looks.
Here in Southern California, one orchid that grows extremely well is the boat orchid, Cymbidium. These types of orchids have been grown and depicted in drawings and poetry for more than two thousand years since the time of Confucius. They are still popular plants today because of the big, showy and long-lasting flowers. The pink, yellow, green, red, brown, peach or combination colored flowers also last superbly as cut flowers—if you change water daily and cut back the bottom of the spike, they can look pristine for a month or two in the vase.
The vast majority of orchids grown in the home are epiphytes, meaning they live in nature by clinging to trees or even stones. The roots of these plants are highly specialized organs that differ dramatically from normal plant roots. Of course, it's hard to generalize about anything when it comes to orchids. This is the single largest group of plants in the world, so for every rule, there are 100 exceptions.
Sympodial: Sympodial orchids have a front (the newest growth) and a back (the oldest growth). The plant produces a series of adjacent shoots, which grow to a certain size, bloom and then stop growing and are replaced. Sympodial orchids grow laterally rather than vertically, following the surface of their support. The growth continues by development of new leads, with their own leaves and roots, sprouting from or next to those of the previous year, as in Cattleya. While a new lead is developing, the rhizome may start its growth again from a so-called 'eye', an undeveloped bud, thereby branching. Sympodial orchids may have visible pseudobulbs joined by a rhizome, which creeps along the top or just beneath the soil.
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.
These orchids can be planted in orchid bark, moss or a mix (mixes might include bark, small rocks, moss, sponge rock, and even cork). Don’t even think about planting them in the soil. If your orchid is planted in bark you’ll need to water it more often than if it’s planted in moss. The bark will help the water drain with ease where the moss will hold the moisture longer. I prefer the bark or mixes which are predominantly bark because the watering is much easier for me to get right.
I wish I could tell you exactly how often to water your phalaenopsis orchids and how much water to give them and be done with this post. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all answer. When it comes to watering any plants there are lots of factors to consider that’ll make the amounts and regularity vary. I’ll go over all those factors so you can see what will be the best for your own situation.
There are lots of orchid photos. I spent 16 days in country and managed to visit Sao Paulo state beaches, littoral plain and littoral mountains as well as the Mantiquera Mountains and up to Diamantina in northern Minas Gerais all by car with the well known Brazilian orchid expert, Marcos Campacci. The name may ring a bell as he is the describer of many new Brazilian orchid species such as Cattleya tenuis. He is also the editor of Boletim CAOB and Brasil Orqueideas, 2 major orchid publications in Brazil.
This is not a type of orchid you’ll want to place on your windowsill, because the stems grow up to four feet high. Phaius orchids have large, strappy leaves, and they usually produce petals that are yellow, purple, or white. Also known as the Nun’s Cap orchid, it is a winter bloomer and makes a great addition to anyone’s garden, regardless of what else is planted there.
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The Gongora orchid genus is a really neat type of orchids, related to Stanhopea. They have nice, strong fragrances, often of cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg. The flower stems hang over the pot's edge and the flowers point downwards. They can adapt to a wide variety of lighting conditions and a relatively large temperature range, but like a lot of water.
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.
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.
Most orchids we grow indoors come from the tropics, and most parts of the tropics are much more humid than the average living room. Orchids grow better if you can boost the humidity in their immediate growing area by grouping your plants together, or placing them on a dry well. Create a dry well by placing plastic lattice or pebbles on a tray, then adding water to just below the lattice or top of the pebbles. Place your potted plants on top of the lattice or pebbles. Learn even more tips for keeping your orchids healthy.
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.