Orchids are some of the most striking plants on earth, while also being the biggest plant family there is, encompassing roughly 25,000 different species.
Orchids are known to cover every continent, apart from Antarctica, which is the only place they aren’t found naturally.
While this can make narrowing down a particular orchid very tricky, there are certain features which help identify what kind it might be.
Different shapes or colors of flowers, how the flowers form on the plant, the shape of the leaves, and the height of the plant are just some of the indicators you can use to narrow it down.
Orchids produce some of the most beautiful flowers, you’ll find it difficult to find such unusual flowers on other plants, besides those in the Protea (see Proteas: Common Flower Varieties, Meaning and Growing Tips) genus, perhaps. It also helps that they are so long-lived, cementing their popularity across the world.
As houseplants, orchids boast the longest living flowers and the most dramatic flowers of plants which like indoor conditions, and this has made them a firm favorite of anyone wanting to bring some color and nature indoors.
While some orchids can reach huge heights, like the tiger orchid, which has managed to get 7.62 meters tall, others barely reach a couple of millimeters, so there is definitely one for every space.
Some prefer lots of light, and others need low light levels in order to thrive. Some need very high humidity, while others prefer environments which are a little drier.
One thing unites all orchids, though, they are beautiful. Here’s everything you need to know about orchids, from the different categories, how to care for them, and unusual examples of varieties which you can try growing yourself.
At A Glance: What You Should Know About Orchids
The Orchidaceae plant family is the biggest on earth, and while they can be found across the world, a sizable portion of orchids are native to tropical climates.
They form a vital part of delicate ecosystems around the world, and often depend on other plants to live, highlighting the importance of keeping nature in balance.
Orchids come in a kaleidoscope of color, often being bicolored or even tricolored, in shades of white, purple, pink, and a dark red which looks almost black.
Depending on the type of orchid you get, and the conditions it’s grown in, these beautiful blooms can last anywhere from a single day, a couple of days, up to a couple of months.
Get To Know The Different Types Of Orchids
Orchids come in three different types, epiphytic orchids, terrestrial orchids, and lithophytic orchids. It’s important to know the difference between them, as this will form the basis of care.
The better you’re able to mimic their natural growing conditions, the better the flowers they will produce. Get the growing conditions right, and your orchids will flourish, some for years to come.
The vast majority of orchids fall under the epiphyte category. This means that these orchids grow on other plants instead of in soil, which means they have less plants to compete with, and it also brings them a little closer to sources of light.
They need great air circulation around their roots, hate sitting in standing water, or being weighed down by soil.
You’ll notice that the roots of an epiphyte orchid look pale, and this is a layer called velamen, which extracts water from the air, and also helps them stay attached to other plants.
Terrestrial orchids, as the name might suggest, grow in the ground. Their survival isn’t dependent on other plants.
Terrestrial orchids are usually cold-hardy plants, found in colder climates, while epiphytic orchids are largely tropical species, usually found in rainforests, growing off trees or other tall plants.
Some terrestrial orchids require sub-freezing temperatures in order to grow and flower as they should, and they also go dormant during the summer months.
The vast majority of orchids that fall under the terrestrial category don’t live in soil, but rather bogs, leaf debris, or in moss.
Lithophytic orchids don’t grow on other plants, or in the ground. So what do they attach themselves to?
They grow on rocks. No, really. You might wonder how they manage this, but it’s pretty simple, and similar to the above.
Epiphytic orchids are pretty similar to lithophytes, in which nutrients are washed by the rain into the roots of the orchids.
The roots of a lithophytic orchid also find their way into crevices, where they eat the fungal growth which naturally appears there.
What’s The Difference Between A Monopodial Orchid and a Sympodial Orchid?
The terms monopodial and sympodial are also pretty key when it comes to knowing about orchids, as they grow differently.
Some will need staking and a careful eye as to when that might be, and others barely need more than one small stake for all of their lives.
Monopodial and sympodial orchids have two different growth habits.
Monopodial orchids grow from a single stem which grows upward, and the leaves grow on either side of this stem.
The top of the stem keeps on growing, and flower stems form as part of the main stem, between the foliage.
Sympodial orchids grow from rhizomes, and a series of horizontal stems appear, and each one will eventually produce flowers.
These orchids also produce pseudobulbs, which act as food storage for the plant, meaning that they need significantly less water.
A Closer Look At Orchid Flowers
The flowers of an orchid are wonderfully symmetrical. If you were to cut one vertically, each side would look exactly the same as the other. You could put a mirror to one side, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Even though orchids vary wildly and there are so many species, the flowers are still similar in structure, and knowing the different parts only adds to their beauty. Each flower is sophisticated and intricate in its design.
Orchid flowers feature three sepals, and three petals, two of which are lateral, and a labellum which is at the base of the flower itself, usually forming the most dramatic part of the flower. The size of this particular petal depends on the type of the orchid.
The lip or labellum of the orchid also functions as a signpost for pollinators, letting them know where they can extract the nectar from the flower. Otherwise, it can be a little tricky for them to tell!
Markings on the flowers also help them find their way, and sometimes, these markings are invisible to the naked eye.
When it comes to the sepals, these are the parts that face outward. The topmost sepal is referred to as the dorsal sepal, and the lower sepals are the lateral sepals.
The part of the orchid flower which contains the reproductive parts is called the column.
Orchids You Should Grow Yourself
All orchids are beautiful, but they may be difficult to tell apart, and choosing one to begin with can be the trickiest and most vital choice of all.
The type you choose will dictate its care, so you’ll need to go for one where its care requirements match up with how much time you’re willing to spend on them.
Oncidium orchids require little care (see also Oncidium Orchid Types And Care), but Cymbidium orchids are much more demanding plants, and they usually require some outside time in the summer in order to thrive.
This is a daunting choice, but we’ve got you covered. Here’s some of the most widely-available options to choose from, and all of these orchids should be grown as houseplants.
This is one of the most popular choices of orchid, and it’s probably the one you picture when you think of an orchid. It’s also the most widely available orchid, no matter where you live.
The scientific name is the same as the common, and it honors William Cattley, who was a rare plant collector, merchant and horticulturalist who loved orchids.
The name cattleya covers a whole genus of orchids. These orchids are divided into two groups: unifoliate and bifoliate.
Unifoliate cattleya orchids produce small and large flowers, and bifoliate flowers produce smaller flowers, but more flowers overall.
The Cattleya orchid is also known as the corsage orchid, or the queen of the orchids.
Cattleya orchids are either sympodial epiphytes, or lithophytes.
One of the reasons why cattleya orchids are so renowned across the world is because the flowers are so large, reaching anywhere from 5 to 8 inches in diameter.
You can also recognize cattleya orchids by the petals, which are ruffled at the edges, and the center of the petals a different hue from the rest of the flower.
These blooms can last anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks, some of which are perfumed.
The labellum of the flowers are usually a different color from the petals. A single flower stem can bear between 2 and 10 flowers. Most cattleya orchids bloom once a year, in spring or in autumn.
Cattleya orchids produce a pseudobulb, from which the stems and leaves form.
Some examples of unifoliate cattleya orchids include:
- Cattleya araguaiensis ‘Chocolate Pearl’
- Cattleya dowiana aurea ‘Molten Rivers’
- Cattleya jenmanii var. coerulea ‘Linc’
- Cattleya labiata semi-alba ‘Dancing Dolls’
- Cattleya maxima coerulea ‘MC’
- Cattleya mossaie ‘Dark Secret’
- Cattleya percivaliana ‘Gene Crocker’
Some examples of bifoliate cattleya orchids (see also Cattleya Orchid Guide) include:
- Cattleya aclandiae ‘KG’s Spotted Tiger’
- Cattleya amethystoglossa ‘Crownfox III’
- Cattleya dormaniana ‘Renee’
- Cattleya schofieldiana ‘Redoubtable’
Dendrobium orchids (see also Dendrobium Orchid Care Guide) make up the second-largest genus within the orchid plant family, containing over 1,200 species that we know of.
Like the cattleya genus, the dendrobium genus name is both the common and scientific name.
The name dendrobium comes from two Greek words, translating to ‘life tree’, referencing the epiphyte orchids.
The vast majority of orchids within the genus are sympodial and epiphytic, but there are some terrestrial species, too.
Dendrobium orchids bloom from fall until winter. They produce light pink, pale purple, or white flowers, usually a combination of these.
Some form in clusters, others on flower spikes which arch, and others only form single flowers. The size of each bloom depends on the species.
Dendrobium orchids are not only very beautiful plants, but some under this genus have medicinal uses. Dendrobium nobile, or the Noble Dendrobium, is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.
In the wild, Dendrobium orchids can be found in many parts of the world, including the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Asia.
Some examples of Dendrobium orchids include:
- Dendrobium nobile ‘Noble Dendrobium’
- Dendrobium bigibbum ‘Cooktown orchid’
- Dendrobium anosmum var. Superbum ‘Unscented Dendrobium’
- Dendrobium moniliforme
- Dendrobium thyrsiflorium ‘Pinecone Orchid’
- Dendrobium parishii
- Dendrobium loddigesii
- Dendrobium fimbriatum
Orchids under the Phalaenopsis genus are best for beginners, as they are quite forgiving. They are also known as moth orchids, or phals for short.
Most orchids within this genus are monopodial epiphytes, though there are a few lithophytes, too.
Moth orchids come from Australia, West Africa, and South Asia. These orchids produce their flowers on long arching stems, producing huge clusters of flowers in green, red, pink, yellow, or white, somewhere between autumn and spring.
Each stem can hold up to 20 flowers at a time, making for a fantastic display. Each flower can last up to 4 months in total, given the right conditions.
The blooms themselves can also feature speckles or stripes in a different color. The lips of the flowers are noticeably much smaller than the petals.
The flowers are made up of two lateral petals, a central lip, and three sepals which also resemble petals. The flower stalks are smaller than other orchid types, and the roots are larger.
Phalaenopsis leaves are dark and glossy, usually forming on opposite sides of the stalks.
These kinds of orchids need a much darker position than other types, and a high humidity in order to thrive.
Examples of Phalaenopsis orchids include:
- Phalaenopsis bellina
- Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica
- Phalaenopsis deliciosa
- Phalaenopsis wilsonii
- Phalaenopsis gigantea
Cymbidium orchids, otherwise known as boat orchids, (see also Cymbidium Orchid Varieties And Care) are usually sympodial epiphytes, but they can also be terrestrial.
The common name, boat orchid, describes the shape of the flower’s labellum.
They flower from autumn until winter, and produce clusters of gorgeous flowers in as many colors as you can imagine, and these clusters can produce up to 24 flowers. They are also heavily perfumed.
In order to flower, Cymbidium orchids need colder temperatures. It’s worth knowing that these orchids only produce flowers once, though they largely last on the plant more than 8 weeks longer than other types of orchid.
The epiphytic orchids with the Cymbidium category produce thick pseudobulbs. You can also recognize them by the long stalks, and grass-like leaves, some of which can be variegated, depending on the type.
When mature, these orchids can reach an impressive height of 4 feet.
Types of Cymbidium orchids include:
- Cymbidium floribundum
- Cymbidium goeringii ‘Noble Orchid’
- Cymbidium aloifolium ‘Aloe-Leaf Orchid’
- Cymbidium ensifolium
- Cymbidium kanran ‘Cold-Growing Cymbidium’
Paphiopedilum orchids have several common names, including lady slipper orchid, slipper orchids, Venus slipper orchids, and paphs.
The genus name, Paphiopedilum, comes from the Greek word pedilon, which means slipper.
All the orchids under this genus, as you might guess, feature unusual flowers which have lips shaped like slippers. These special flowers bloom from winter until spring.
In the wild, Paphiopedilum orchids can be found in parts of Northern India, Southern China, Southeast Asia and the Philippines.
To mimic their native conditions, Paphiopedilum orchids need a fairly dark position, but you must not allow them to dry out completely. As you can imagine, this can make watering tricky to begin with, until you get the hang of it.
Most Paphiopedilum flowers feature speckles or stripes, and are available in shades of brown, white, yellow, pink, or red.
The individual flowers can last longer than 2 months, and the plant produces them either individually, or in small clusters.
You can also recognize a Paphiopedilum orchid by its leaves, which have a leathery appearance, also lanceolate.
Examples of Paphiopedilum orchids include:
- Paphiopedilum delenatii
- Paphiopedilum insigne
- Paphiopedilum rothschildianum ‘Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid’
- Paphiopedilum bellatulum
- Paphiopedilum niveum
Oncidium orchids are also known as golden shower orchids, dancing lady orchids, bee orchids, and tiger orchids.
The genus name comes from the Greek work onkos, which means swelling, and draws your attention to the callus which forms on the labellum of the flower.
Most varieties within the genus are epiphytic sympodial orchids, though there are a few which are terrestrial types, as well as lithophytic orchids.
Oncidium orchids are admired across the world for their captivating flowers, which are produced in abundance atop huge flower spikes.
You can recognize Oncidium orchids by the gorgeous flowers, which come in warmer tones of red, pink, white, and yellow, often with ruffled petals.
The size of the flowers can be as petite as 6mm, or as large as 10cm in diameter, and this is dictated by the type.
If the Oncidium orchid isn’t in flower, you can also recognize it by its pseudobulbs, producing up to 3 leaves each.
Examples of Oncidium orchids include:
- Oncidium concolor ‘Mother Teresa’
- Oncidium gutfreundianum ‘Gigi’
- Oncidium varicosum
- Oncidium tigrinum
Vanda orchids, also known as the Singapore orchids, are monopodial epiphytes, which are found naturally in Southeast Asia.
The flowers produced on Vanda orchids come in nearly every color imaginable, in nearly every combination you can think of, as they are very easy plants to hybridize, and new cultivars are being developed all the time.
Vanda orchids are repeat-bloomers, and produce their large flowers on spikes.
You can also recognize a Vanda orchid by its large stems, which have an upright habit. The leaves grow on opposite sides, and the plant also produces aerial roots.
Some types of Vanda orchids can reach up to 6 feet in height, but most are more petite than this.
Some Vanda orchids have unusual foliage which are tubular shaped, known as ‘terete’ leaves. Others have dense, strap-like leaves.
Types of Vanda orchids include:
- Vanda ampullacea
- Vanda cristata
- Vanda tricolor
- Vanda hindsii ‘Cape York Vanda’
Encyclia orchids are naturally found in Mexico, the Caribbean, and other parts of tropical Americas, where it grows in humid forests.
The flowers are instantly recognizable, often resembling squids or octopuses or other forms of sea life, hence the common name cockleshell orchid.
While the flowers are nowhere near as huge as others on this list, Encyclia orchids produce lots of them, and their unusual appearance more than makes up for their petite forms, which usually grow to a maximum of 4cm wide.
Colors available include pink, green, brown, purple, and yellow, and they are usually spotted.
One of the most recognizable features of the Encyclia orchid is the lateral labellum petals, which curve around the column of the flower. This is where the genus name comes from, derived from the Greek word enkykleomai, which means to encircle.
Encyclia orchids also have pseudobulbs, which are usually globular, producing a couple of leaves each.
Like Cattleya orchids, Encyclia orchids need medium to bright indirect sunlight in order to thrive. Humidity is best at levels of 50 – 80%, and they can withstand mild temperatures, but no extremes of hot or cold.
There’s an Encyclia orchid for every space, as they come in sizes ranging anywhere from a modest 2 inches tall, to an impressive 2 feet. Depending on classification rules, there’s anywhere from 147 to 188 species of discovered Encyclia orchids.
Examples of Encyclia orchids include:
- Encyclia alata ‘Winged Encyclia’
- Encyclia adenocaula
- Encyclia viridiflora
- Encyclia bractescens
- Encyclia mooreana
- Encyclia ceratistes ‘Frosted Rain’
Epidendrum orchids (see also Epidendrum Orchid Types And Care) are also known as reed orchids, star orchids, or crucifix orchids. The genus is largely made up of monopodial epiphytes, but there are several other species which are terrestrial.
The name of the genus is also derived from Greek, translating to ‘upon trees’, which refers to those orchids which are dependent on other plants to survive, normally large trees.
Epidendrum orchids are a close relation to the cattleya orchids, and there’s at least 1,500 recognized species.
You can recognize the Epidendrum orchid by the elongated pseudobulbs, and leaves which form alternately.
Flowers are formed on towering stems, and come in purple, yellow, white, and red, usually spanning an inch or so wide.
These flowers form in a cross-shape, with a three-lobed lip. Note that if an Epidendrum orchid isn’t grown in the right conditions, it won’t bloom at all.
Blooms also form in clusters, ranging from 30 to 40 individual flowers, which are long-lived and petite. Once it’s done flowering, an Epidendrum orchid also produces keikis, or miniature copies of itself.
Types of Epidendrum orchids include:
- Epidendrum radicans ‘Fire-star Orchid’
- Epidendrum nocturnum ‘Night-scented Orchid’
- Epidendrum pseudepidendrum
- Epidendrum difforme
- Epidendrum magnoliae ‘Green Fly Orchid’
If you have had orchids before, and you’ve managed to give them long lives, why not try a harder orchid?
The vanilla orchid is probably the hardest of them all to encourage flowering, but all the effort is worth seeing these fantastic blooms. Not just for the blooms themselves, but also for the vanilla beans.
Vanilla beans are produced on vanilla planifolia, and while this is quite a challenge, it’s easy to get the vine to grow, just not to flower.
All types of vanilla orchid (see also Vanilla Orchid Care Guide) come under the vanilla genus, and they are epiphytes which are monopodial.
These special orchids need medium, indirect light, temperatures which are on the warm side, and a fair amount of watering.
You can also recognize the vanilla orchid by the leaves, which are dense and bright green.
The flowers themselves stretch to 5 inches in diameter, appearing in yellow or yellow with a green tinge, appearing close to the leaves.
These gorgeous blooms only last for a single day, and they’re produced between spring and summer.
Types of Vanilla orchids include:
- Vanilla planifolia ‘Flat-Leaved Vanilla Orchid’
- Vanilla somae ‘Hayata’
- Vanilla pilifera
- Vanilla chamissonis ‘Chamisso’s Vanilla’
- Vanilla Mexicana ‘Mexican Vanilla’