Getting to Know Your Orchids by Name


By Steven A. Frowine

Editor's Note: This is the second of a 10 part series of articles about orchids. These articles are written by Steven Frowine, who collaborated with National Gardening Association and Wiley & Sons to produce the highly popular book Orchids for Dummies. We hope you enjoy this series of articles! See part 1.

Probably one of the most intimidating hurdles that the beginning orchid grower faces is the complex names given to orchids. When you realize what an immense groups of plants this is, you'll soon come to realize why most orchids are referred to by their Latin name rather than a common name. Actually, very few orchids even have a common name. I always use the Latin name, because that's the universally accepted name, and I add a common name, when there is one.

If you struggled through high school Latin classes as I did, you may have thought (and hoped) that this language died with the Romans. Alas, it is alive and well in the natural-science world, and it's the standard language used to name flora and fauna. You'll start to make friends with Latin as its use become more familiar and comfortable to you.
Taking the name a little at a times makes it easier to digest. In the following sections, I show you the names, one word at a time, of a species orchid and then a hybrid.


Plants that are sold as they were created by nature, not hybridized by man, are referred to as species orchids. They have two names: the genus name, which comes first and is capitalized, and the species name, which comes second and is lowercase. Both names are in Latin so they're italicized (which is just the way foreign languages are usually treated).
You may see a third part to the name, the botanical variety, after the species name. This is a name given to an orchid that varies somewhat — it could be a larger flower or one with slightly different coloration — from the standard species. It will be preceded by the letters "var." and will be in lowercase and in Latin.
The genus name is much like your last name and the species name is like your first name.  In other words, orchid naming is backward to the way you say your own name. If my name were written as an orchid's is, I would be Frowine steven.
Here's an example of the name of a species orchid: Cattleya walkeriana var. alba. This is a photograph of this orchid, and information below explains the orchid's name.

Cattleya walkeriana var. semialba is a white form with lavender and yellow on the lip.

The Components of a Species Orchid Name

Genus name Cattleya The first name of the orchid is the genus and is like your last name. It's always capitalized and in Latin.
Species name walkeriana The second name of the orchid is the species. It's always in lowercase, italicized, and in Latin.
Botanical variety var. semialba Sometimes, a third name appears for a species orchid. This is called a botanical variety and means this form of this species has something special about it (for example, flower shape or color) that separates it from the more common form of the species. This name is in lowercase, italicized, and in Latin.


Oh, it would be so simple if naming stopped here, but man got mixed up in all this and started developing hybrids. Hybrids result from crossing two species (taking the pollen from one orchid to use it to "mate" with another). A marvelous thing happens when two different species of orchids are crossed or mated to each other. Their progeny is usually stronger, easier to grow, and frequently produces larger flowers than either of its parents — which is why hybrids are so desirable and popular.

Here's an example of a hybrid orchid name:  Rhyncholaeliocattleya Cynthia 'Pink Lady' HCC/AOS.

The explanation below breaks down the name and explains its various parts.

The Components of a Hybrid Orchid's Name

Genus Rhyncholaeliocattleya This genus combines two different genera — Rhyncholaelia  and Cattleya — to result in the man-made name of Rhyncholaeliocattleya. The name is capitalized, in Latin, italicized, and frequently abbreviated Rlc.

Species--- None This is a hybrid that has a few different species in its parentage, so no single one is listed. When an orchid hybrid comes from just one species, the species name will also be listed, lowercase, in italics, and in Latin.

Grex Cynthia All the resulting progeny from this cross are given a name that's known as a grex. Think of this as you and all your siblings having a label. The grex is always written in a language other than Latin, is capitalized, and is not in italics.

Cultivar (cultivated variety) 'Pink Lady' This is a selection from this grex that was deemed, in some way, superior or different to the other members of the progeny. This name is always in any language other than Latin, is capitalized, is not italicized, and is in single quotes. There are frequently several or more cultivars in a grex. Think of the cultivar as one of your parents' children. You're all labeled with a grex, but the cultivar is you in particular.

Award Designation HCC/AOS Highly Commended Certificate from the American Orchid Society.
Orchid hybridizing can produce plants with quite complex names, especially in some of the very large groups like the cattleyas and the oncidiums . I will deal with their names in more detail.
You don't have to be an expert in orchid names in order to enjoy and grow orchids. You'll catch onto many other name nuances after you're drawn further into the orchid web. For now, don't worry about them much — they're only names!


Awarded orchids are the crème de la crème of the orchid world. They've been deemed this distinction by trained, discriminating orchid judges. The American Orchid Society, a nonprofit educational organization that is dedicated to the study of orchids has established the judging criteria. Similar organizations serve the same function in other parts of the world.

At each accredited orchid show, a covey of judges carefully examine orchids that are exceptional. They use Internet connections to check all existing records of the orchids being judged. They look for ones of the same grex or similar parentage to see what has been awarded in the past to serve as a benchmark of excellence. These records will reveal which of their parents have been awarded, what size and number of flowers were on the awarded plants, and so on. These criteria are then used to decide if these specimens are indeed superior to others of this type and whether they're worthy of awards. The three award categories used by the American Orchid Society that you're most likely to encounter are (from highest to lowest):

* First Class Certificate (FCC): This is the coveted highest award that only a handful of orchids (10 or 15!) receive every year.

* Award of Merit (AM): Usually a few hundred orchids win this distinction every year.

* Highly Commended Certificate (HCC): Another few hundred orchids are given this level of award.

Other orchid societies in many parts of the world also have their own equally prestigious award designations.

Very few orchids make it through this gauntlet. Because of modern cloning techniques, you can now obtain these prize winners for your own collection at very reasonable prices. Some types of orchids, like the slippers, are not yet able to be cloned (although there are rumors that this is now possible) so in that case, picking out those hybrids with awarded parents is a good idea. Remember: It takes the same amount of space to grow a high-quality orchid as it does a poor one, so why not grow the best?

Frowine, Steven A. 2005. Orchids for Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley& Sons, Inc.

This useful reference, Orchids for Dummies, which has been popular for both beginner and experienced orchid lovers, is available on and in book stores around the country. 

This article is categorized under:
This article is categorized under:
Member Login:

( No account? Join now! )

Today's site banner is by RachaelHunter and is called "Bleeding Hearts"

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.