The family encompasses about 6–11% of all seed plants. The largest genera are Bulbophyllum (2,000 species), Epidendrum (1,500 species), Dendrobium (1,400 species) and Pleurothallis (1,000 species). It also includes Vanilla–the genus of the vanilla plant, the type genus Orchis, and many commonly cultivated plants such as Phalaenopsis and Cattleya. Moreover, since the introduction of tropical species into cultivation in the 19th century, horticulturists have produced more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars.
Orchids have been used in traditional medicine in an effort to treat many diseases and ailments. They have been used as a source of herbal remedies in China since 2800 BC. Gastrodia elata is one of the three orchids listed in the earliest known Chinese Materia Medica (Shennon bencaojing) (c. 100 AD). Theophrastus mentions orchids in his Enquiry into Plants (372–286 BC).
My favorite type of orchid is the lady slipper orchid because of their strange appearance. They are like no other types of flowers and have pouch-shaped lips. The mostly terrestrial and lithophytic slipper orchids include four genera—Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium, Cypripedium and Selenipedium. But most Cypripedium and Selenipedium are not plants for the beginner because they can be quite difficult to grow under cultivation unless you live in temperate regions with Cypripedium growing wildly in your back yard!
One of the most interesting things about growing any type of orchid is how they grow. Most of the houseplant orchids and even lady slipper orchids need good air flow around their roots. With indoor orchids, use an orchid potting mix that features some kind of blend of composted bark, expanded clay pellets, hardwood charcoal and peat moss or sand. The mix should create many air pockets for orchid roots to breathe.
The type of potting medium being used can also affect your plant's water requirements. Bark has a tendency to dry out more rapidly than sphagnum moss, for instance. It is important to remember, however, that even when the surface of your pot is dry, the root area may remain moist. Poke your finger or a regular wooden pencil an inch into the pot; if it feels moist to the touch or if the pencil looks moist, do not add additional water. The potting medium should always be damp, but not soggy—neither should it be allowed to get extremely dry.
This site is compiled from photos collected from growers or photo collectors around the world and I rely on them to try to be sure of their identification. As we all know, however, many plants are mislabeled and growers and collectors can't know all species in every genera, so please be advised that to the best of our knowledge the following ID's are correct. I have hundreds of references, thanks to you all, but often many species are not well represented. I try to the best of my capabilities to be correct but as the adage goes, "To err is human". Many species herewith have been scrutinized by taxonomic experts and will be correct, but this may not be true of all the species described. If you have any questions as to the veracity of any species described in this encyclopedia please e-mail me, Jay Pfahl, at email@example.com and we will work at correcting the mistake. As to the text it is compiled by culling notes from hundreds of books and publications [See Bibliography and source books] but it too can be wrong in part due to my mistake or in the often conflicting reports on various orchids.
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.
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.
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.
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.