Orchids, with their tens of thousands species, are the most widespread family of plants on Earth. Yet, we humans still find plenty of room to “improve.” Orchid breeders have created hundreds of thousands of named hybrids. Perhaps it’s because orchids can be crossed easily, or maybe it’s because they are very creative and difficult to breed. The vast majority of plants on the market today are hybrids that some breeder created and made a reality.
Creativity of the Human Mind and Orchid Variety
It is easy to create hybrid orchid flowers, but it can be difficult. It is easy to create new and exciting combinations by crossing orchid species and genera. However, hybridizing orchids is an extremely difficult and complex task. Orchid seeds can be tiny and almost microscopic. They must be kept in sterilized flasks with sterile substrates. A orchid seed-raising facility looks more like a pharmaceutical laboratory with rows of sealed flasks containing tiny seedlings, than a typical greenhouse.
These breeding operations can produce amazing results for orchid lovers, even those who don’t have an interest in hybridizing their plants. After a breeder has created and stabilized a new species, they can apply for registration with the Royal Horticultural Society. This is the global repository of new orchid breeds.
Understanding Orchid Labels
The proper reading of orchid labels is one of the most difficult aspects for new orchidists. It’s difficult to identify what your plants are without studying the label. Orchid labels are essential information for any collector who wants to catalogue their collection.
You might find a variety of descriptions depending on the orchid and the garden center. Phalaenopsis orchids and dendrobium orchids are the most popular. These are the most common orchids and you can almost guarantee that your local garden center will have a table full of hybridized orchids.
Breeders of phalaenopsis strive to produce large, flat-petaled, white flowers with a smattering of purple or striped colors. White phals are derived from the P. amabilis species or P. aphrodite another species. P. sanderiana and P. schilleriana are responsible for the color of purple phals. To create the amazing range of phalaenopsis orchids that we have today, other species have been cross-bred and recrossed. True species are more difficult to find, and they are often only found in collectors’ greenhouses.
Dendrobium orchids are no exception. The vast majority of them on the market today, however, are hybridized. Dendrobium has over 1,200 species, which includes a wide variety of plant and flower types. The noble cane dendrobium group is the source of the majority of hybrid dendrobiums. Common florist’s dendrobiums are the Phalaenanthes and Phalaenopsis groups.
It can be confusing to name orchids outside of the two most popular genera. Breeders have spent a lot of time researching orchid genetics in their search for the perfect flower. This has resulted in thousands of named orchids. The naming protocol for orchids has been established and is consistent, so it makes sense. Bulbophyllum Sumatrum “Rainbow”, for example, contains many pieces of information.
- Genus: Bulbophyllum (always italicized)
- Sumatrum (always in italicized).
- Cultivar: “Rainbow”
Cultivars can be considered stable variations of the same plant. This Rainbow cultivar will be identical to all other Rainbow cultivars of the same plant. It has been modified to eliminate all variations.
Other labels you might see include Vascostylis Viboon Vevet “PuffyCloud” This label is for:
- Vascostylis: Genus
- Species: Viboon velvet (note that it is capitalized, but not italicized-this indicates it’s a mixed species. Named species, unlike natural species names are capitalized and written plain text. In the orchid world, they are sometimes called a grex.
- Cultivar: “Puffy Cloud”
Breeders may also include the parents of a hybrid in parentheses after the name of the plant, for example Phragmipedium Eric Young, besseae x langifolium. This case reveals that the plant is from Phragmipedium. It’s a hybrid called Eric Young. It’s a cross between besseae, longifolium and other species in the Phragmipedium genera.
To make things more confusing, breeders don’t usually include the complete genus name on the label. This is especially true for complicated hybrids that might combine three genera or have long genus names. These plants have standard abbreviations, so understanding orchid abbreviations is part of the territory.