Understanding Orchid Hybrids

Beautiful orchid in bloom

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With tens of thousands of species, orchids are the most prolific family of plants on Earth and yet we humans still found plenty of room for "improvement." Maybe it's because orchids are so easy to cross, or maybe it's because breeding is at once both highly creative and demanding (like any fine art), but orchid breeders have introduced literally hundreds of thousands of named hybrids. In fact, the vast majority of plants for sale in the trade today are hybrids that some breeder dreamed up and made a reality.

Human Creativity and Orchid Variety

Producing hybrid flowers from orchids is both relatively easy and relatively difficult. The plants themselves readily cross with other orchid species and genera (in many cases), making it especially easy to come up with wonderful new combinations. Yet as a rule, producing orchids from seed is a difficult and specialized task, whether you're hybridizing or not. Orchid seeds are tiny, almost microscopic, and must be raised in sterile flasks on a sterile substrate. An orchid seed-raising operation looks far more like a pharmaceutical lab, with its rows of sealed flasks filled with tiny seedlings than a typical greenhouse.

But the results of these breeding operations can be astonishing for the orchid lover, even those among us who have no interest in hybridizing plants ourselves. Once a breeder has produced and stabilized a new strain, they can apply to register the new plant with the Royal Horticultural Society, the world repository for new orchid breeds.

Understanding Orchid Labels

One of the most challenging aspects for new orchidists is the proper reading of orchid labels. Without understudying the plant's label, it's impossible to know what you're growing. For any kind of collector at all, orchid labels provide the critical information they need to catalog their collection.

Depending on the orchid (and the garden center), you might find any number of descriptions on the label. The two most common plants, of course, are phalaenopsis and dendrobium orchids. These two plants are by far the most popular orchids, and it's almost guaranteed that the table of orchids at your local garden center is filled exclusively with hybridized flowers.

In the case of phalaenopsis, breeders strive to produce large, round, flat-petaled flowers in the purest of white or purple or striped. White phals owe their color and shape to the P. amabilis (species) or P. aphrodite (another species). Purple phals owe their coloration to P. sanderiana or P. schilleriana. Other species have been crossed and recrossed extensively to create the dazzling range of phalaenopsis orchids we have today. True species are harder to find and typically found only in collectors' greenhouses.

The same is true for dendrobium orchids, the vast majority of which on the market today are hybridized plants. There are about 1,200 species in the Dendrobium genus, encompassing an incredible array of flower and plant types. However, the vast majority of dendrobium hybrids descend from the nobile group of cane dendrobiums. The Phalaenanthes group, including the very popular Phalaenopsis Dendrobiums, are the common florist's dendrobiums.

Outside of these two popular genera, things can get confusing, especially when you're new to orchid naming. In their quest for perfect flowers, breeders have delved deeply into orchid genetics, resulting in tens of thousands of named plants. But fortunately, the naming protocol for orchids is standardized so it always makes sense. For example, the plant name Bulbophyllum sumatrum "Rainbow" contains several pieces of information.

  • Genus: Bulbophyllum (always italicized)
  • Species: sumatrum (always italicized)
  • Cultivar: "Rainbow"

Cultivars are stable variants of the same plant. You can be assured that the Rainbow cultivar of this plant will be identical to every other Rainbow cultivar of the same plant. All variation has been bred out of it.

You might also see labels such as Vascostylis Viboon Velvet "Puffy Cloud." In this case, the label means:

  • Genus: Vascostylis
  • Species: Viboon Velvet (note that it's capitalized and not italicized-this means it's a hybrid species. Unlike natural species names, named species are capitalized and plain text. They are also referred to as a grex in the orchid world).
  • Cultivar: "Puffy Cloud"

Finally, breeders sometimes include a hybrid's parents in parentheses after the plant's name, such as Phragmipedium Eric Young (besseae x longifolium). In this case, you now know the plant comes from the genera Phragmipedium; it's a hybrid species called Eric Young; and it derives from a cross between the besseae and longifolium species, within the Phragmipedium genus.

Orchid Abbreviations

Lastly, to make matters more confusing, breeders typically don't include the entire genus name on the plant label, especially with the more complicated hybrids, which might mix three genera and have long genus names. For these plants, abbreviations are standard, and understanding orchid abbreviations comes with the territory.