History of Orchids and How Orchids are Named

The History of Orchids

The name orchid derives from the Greek word for testicles = orchis. In his work Investigations of Plants, Theophrastus (370-285 BC) used the term to describe a group of plants with testicle-like roots, which are today known as Orchidaceae. This ancient text thus became the source of the name of an entire family of plants.


Orchids – Exotic Wonders of Europe

The innocent Cattleya on your windowsill — or, to be exact, its great-great grandmother — once caused one of the worst bouts of plant-hunting fever there ever was. It all began quite harmlessly. Early in the nineteenth century, a certain William Swanson shipped a cargo of tropical plants from Brazil, which he had wrapped in other tropical plants with thick stems and masses of leaves. Some of these packages found their way to a passionate plant enthusiast called Cattley.

History-of-Orchids-and-How-Orchids-are-Named Out of sheer curiosity, Cattley took some of the plants that had been used as packaging material into his greenhouse and was amazed when they produced their first flowers in November 1818. The pink-flowering orchid with a conspicuously coloured labellum became a sensation. Dr John Lindley (1795-1865), the “father of orchid cultivation”, named it Cattleya in honour of Mr Cattley and, on account of its attractive labellum, gave it the full name of Cattleya labiata. No other plant brought back from anywhere by travellers or missionaries had ever created such a fuss, not even Bletia verrecunda from the Bahamas, the first tropical orchid to flower in Europe in 1733!

A short while later, every member of British high society appeared to be competing to see who could amass the largest collection containing the most beautiful and rare species of orchids. Money was no object and orchid mania was to cause some strange happenings. The sixth Duke of Devonshire, William George Spencer Cavendish, built a greenhouse that was 18m (59 ft) high and 91m (299 ft) long to house his collection of orchids, which was the largest in the world at that time.


The hunt for orchids

The demand for orchids grew to such an extent that a breed of professional orchid hunters was created. These adventurous men would often risk their lives to earn the huge sums of money that were on offer. In their quest they had to cope with tropical diseases, swarms of insects, venomous snakes, giant spiders, wild animals, hostile tribesmen and floods. In addition, they had to contend with competition from other hunters, corruption, intrigue, spying and probably murder, too. Whoever managed to survive these perils and bring the plants back safely to Europe soon became rich and also honoured, as the orchids were often named after the finder. Most imported specimens were auctioned off in London for amounts that would easily purchase a small family home nowadays. Very soon, gardeners and botanists began experimenting with these new plants.


Exclusive cultivars

In 1856, the first orchid hybrid, created from Calanthe masuca and Calanthe furcata, began to flower. In 1889 the first Cymbidium hybrid appeared at the Veitch nursery in England and there, in 1892, the first multigeneric hybrid was created from Cattleya, Laelia and Sophronitis. During this period, orchids also became popular as cut flowers, although they were still expensive, luxury items. At one exhibition in Germany, fifteen varieties of Cattleya trianae fetched between 6,000 and 10,000 DM (incredible prices) and in England the variety “Imperator” was sold for 6,000 guineas! In 1905, a trading company named Sander offered a fee of 1,000 pounds sterling to anyone who could procure a specimen of Paphiopedilum fairrieanum, while the highest price ever paid is reputed to have been for a specimen of Odontoglossum crispum.

Not until propagation from seed was finally accomplished did this madness gradually subside. Now even ordinary mortals could afford to buy them. Nowadays, they hardly cost any more than other indoor plants but they have, however, still not quite lost that aura of exclusivity, exoticism and luxury.


The names of orchids

While many European orchids have both scientific and common names, most tropical species have only a proper botanical name.


Wild tropical orchids

Paphiopedilum orchid - lady's slipper orchid Their names are formed from:

  • the genus name, for example Paphiopedilum
  • the species name which points out certain features, for example callosum = with calluses, niveum = snow-white, bellatulum = dainty, etc.
  • the name of the first person to describe the species, for example Rchb. f. = Reichenbach filius
  • any relevant additional information, such as a subspecies, for example Cattleya bicolor minasgeraisensis, or variety (var.), for example, Paphiopedilum primulinum var. purpurescens.

The common name for Paphiopedilum orchids is lady’s slipper orchids.


Cultivated orchids

These have a similarly complicated nomenclature.

Hybrids are crosses between two species of the same genus, for example Cymbidium ballianum, which was created by gardeners from Cymbidium eburneum and Cymbidium mastersii. If such crosses occur in the wild, the name of this natural hybrid is written as follows: Cymbidium x ballianum. The term “generic hybrid” is given to the products of crosses between species and hybrids of different genera. The name is then compiled from the names of the plants concerned, for example: x Schombocattleya for a cross between the genus Cattleya and the genus Schomburgkia.

Multigeneric hybrids arose through crossing three or more genera, for example x Schombolaelicattleya from crossing Schomburgkia, Laelia and Cattleya. If even more orchids are involved, a new name is generally created in order to avoid unmanageably long names, for example Potinara (from crossing Brassavola, Laelia, Cattleya and Sophronitis) or Vuylstekeara (from crossing Odontoglossum, Cochlioda and Miltonia).

Generic and multigeneric hybrids have a second part to their names which tells you which species of the genus were crossed. For example, Laeliocattleya Sheila + Cattleya percivaliana x Laelia pumila. Sheila is the grex name of the hybrid (from Latin grex = herd).

A “variety” is the term given to selected examples of pure species or hybrids which are propagated vegetatively. The variety is characterized by a third part of the plant’s name, for example Odontioda Debutante “Oxbow”.

08. December 2010 by admin
Categories: House Plants, Orchids, Orchids, Plants | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on History of Orchids and How Orchids are Named


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