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Understanding Orchid Names—Reading Orchid Labels

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Over the years, orchid breeders have developed hundreds of thousands of named plants and cultivars, crossing and recrossing orchids to create entirely new and wonderful flowers.

This level of hybridization is unique to plants, and orchids are champions at it. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense to encourage hybridization among plants-easy hybridization helps to ensure that a plant family's genes will prosper and continue in new ecosystems. After all, plants aren't mobile like animals-sometimes natural hybridization is the only way a particular genus can travel beyond its original home range, by crossing with similar plants in new environments.

Orchids have taken this to a whole new level. The genetic walls separating the species and even genera can be very weak, allowing for ready hybridization.

Orchids’ easy ability to create new plants is due in part to orchids' highly specialized growth habits. In the wild, orchids have evolved to fill very tiny niches in the natural world, so the orchids on one mountaintop might be a different species than the orchids on a neighboring mountaintop. Their natural range tends to be very small. As a result, despite the massive variation in their flowers, there is frequently very little genetic variation among various orchid plants, making it very easy to cross two species to create a third, new species. (Imagine if this were possible among animals-we'd be able to easily cross all kinds of four-legged mammals to produce sexually viable offspring, instead of a world of sterile mules.)

Perhaps even better, many orchid genera cross readily with other orchid genera, making it possible to create entirely new genera of orchids. Over time, these new genera have been crossed with still other genera, creating complex hybrids. As a result, a single lovely orchid might have parents from three or more genera and represent an entirely man-made species.

The naming of orchids has evolved along with these breeding programs, as breeders created new names for the hybrid genera they were creating. Typically, a hybrid name consists of the two parents' genera combined. For example, the popular Brassolaelia genus is a combination of the Brassavola and Laelia wild genera. In other cases, the new genera carry the name of the breeder who first developed the plants and registered the plant with the Royal Horticultural Society. Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the orchid family, and constant taxonomic name changes to the underlying genera, as well as the introduction of new hybrids, the names of hybrid plants are constantly changing.

As if that weren't enough, it's not standard practice to label plants with their full hybrid names. Instead, most garden centers and plant centers use widely accepted abbreviations to label their plants. These abbreviations, which signify the genus name, appear before the species and cultivar name. If you're uncertain how to grow a certain plant, this information can be extremely handy. Knowing, for example, than a plant labeled "Bl" is a Brassolaelia gives you vital information for proper husbandry.

Although there are thousands of registered hybrid genera, I've included a partial list below of orchid abbreviations, including their parents. If you're unsure how to treat a particular plant, look to its parents. Chances are, the cultural requirements will be similar.

Hybrid Orchid Abbreviations

Genus Name Abbreviation Parent Genera
Aranda Aranda Arachnis x Vanda
Ascandopsis Ascdps Ascocentrum x Vandopsis
Ascocenda Ascda Ascocentrum x Vanda
Ascovandoritis Asvts Ascocentrum x Doritis x Vanda
Beallara Bllra Brassia x Cochlioda x Miltonia x Odontoglossum
Brassocattleya Bc Brassavola x Cattleya
Brassochilus Brchs Brassia x Leochilus
Brassoepidendrum Bepi Brassavola x Epidendrum
Brassoepilaelia Bpl Brassavola x Epidendrum x Laelia
Brassolaelia Bl Brassavola x Laelia
Brassolaeliocattleya Blc Brassavola x Laelia x Cattleya
Brassotonia Bstna Brassavola x Broughtonia
Doritaenopsis Dtps Doritis x Phalaenopsis
Epicattleya Epi Cattleya x Epidendrum
Epilaeliocattleya Eplc Cattleya x Epidendrum x Laelia
Miltassia Mtssa Brassia x Miltonia
Phalandopsis Phdps Phalaenopsis x Vandopsis
Potinara Pot Brassavola x Cattleya x Laelia x Sophronitis
Vascostylis Vasco Ascocentrum x Rhynchostylis x Vanda
Vaughnara Vnra Brassavola x Cattleya x Epidendrum
Wilsonara Wils Cochlioda x Odontoglossum x Oncidium

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