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.
^ Zhang, Guo-Qiang; Liu, Ke-Wei; Li, Zhen; Lohaus, Rolf; Hsiao, Yu-Yun; Niu, Shan-Ce; Wang, Jie-Yu; Lin, Yao-Cheng; Xu, Qing; Chen, Li-Jun; Yoshida, Kouki; Fujiwara, Sumire; Wang, Zhi-Wen; Zhang, Yong-Qiang; Mitsuda, Nobutaka; Wang, Meina; Liu, Guo-Hui; Pecoraro, Lorenzo; Huang, Hui-Xia; Xiao, Xin-Ju; Lin, Min; Wu, Xin-Yi; Wu, Wan-Lin; Chen, You-Yi; Chang, Song-Bin; Sakamoto, Shingo; Ohme-Takagi, Masaru; Yagi, Masafumi; Zeng, Si-Jin; et al. (2017). "The Apostasia genome and the evolution of orchids" (PDF). Nature. 549 (7672): 379–383. doi:10.1038/nature23897. PMID 28902843.
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.
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.