What is taxonomy?

Taxonomy is a branch of biology in which living things (plants and animals) are divided into different categories according to specific criteria. It is made up of the Greek words táxis for order and nómos for law and means something like regulatory laws. This classification results in the naming of the respective living beings – the nomenclature. This designation is regulated internationally in the so-called Melbourne Code (International Code of Nomenclature – ICBN)). According to these rules, there are binding names, also for our orchids, with the spelling of which you have to pay attention to a few things. In order to name an orchid correctly, at least two names must be given. The genus name always comes first, followed by the name of the species. In orchid culture, when naming orchids, taxonomic rules must be observed, which are explained below.

Why are taxonomic rules important?

By the correct naming of an orchid one can recognize at first glance whether it is a natural form, a natural hybrid or a “man-made” hybrid. Since the rules for natural forms and natural hybrids are valid worldwide, it is equally understandable for every orchid lover – no matter if botanist from England or hobbyist collector from the West Bank – which plant it is.Phalaenopsis for example is also called butterfly orchid in Germany, but an Englishman can do nothing with a “butterfly orchid”, because they are common there as “moth orchids” (moth orchids). Phalaenopsis, however, understand both.

Which rules and terms are important for me as an orchid lover?

The most important terms in the field of orchid culture are genus, species and a possible cultivar or clone name. In addition to these 3 items, there are 3 subgroupings of the species that are significant.

Subspecies (subspecies, subsp.)
Form (forma, fma. or f.)

Genus (Latin: genus)

A genus consists of one or a group of species with a common ancestry. Outside the genus, there are no species descended from the same ancestors. The genus name always comes first and is always written with a capital first letter. In the specialist literature, the genus name is usually written in italics or underlined. It is derived from Latin or ancient Greek and often describes a characteristic of the plant genus or a famous personality was honored with it. Dendrobium, for example, is composed of the ancient Greek words for tree and bios for life, so it means living on the tree, epiphytic.

Species (Latin: Species)

A species exists when unique, constant, morphologically separating criteria exist to characterize it, and when it occupies a particular range ecologically, geographically, or otherwise isolated from related species. From the species name you can immediately tell whether it is a natural form, a natural hybrid or a man-made hybrid. The species name always comes second. Since the spelling differs slightly for all 3 options, we have to consider the individual options separately. As an example I take Phragmipedium schlimii for the following explanations.

natural form (species)

The species name is always written in lower case, in the specialist literature also in italics. When it comes to the species name, there are a number of possibilities as to what the name refers to. Some species are named after their discoverer, some after their geographical range or even after a certain characteristic of the plant. There are many possibilities, but all species names have one thing in common: they are always Latinized.

Phragmipedium schlimii was named after its discoverer, the Belgian plant collector Louis Joseph Schlim. The name Schlim was Latinized by adding the suffix -ii. Often one sees additional names or their abbreviations and numbers behind the names of natural forms. Often also names in brackets, followed by another name and a number, as in Phragmipedium schlimii (Linden ex Reichenbach f.) Rolfe, 1896.

The names in brackets, in our example Linden and Reichenbach f., are the authors who published the first description of this natural form in 1854. At that time still as Selenipedium schlimii . The final classification as Phragmipedium schlimii was then made in 1896 by the English botanist Robert Allen Rolfe. That is why after the brackets there is: Rolfe, 1896. The name Selenipedium schlimii is now considered a synonym of Phragmipedium schlimii.

Subspecies (susp.), varieties (var.) and forms (f.)

In many natural forms there are subspecies, varieties and forms.

Subspecies are, for example, populations at the edge of the distribution area of a species with modifications in appearance, so that populations of plants develop that are morphologically clearly distinguishable from the parent species, but which still have the same essential characteristics as the parent species.

Varieties are small-scale deviations within the distribution area, which occasionally also form cluster-like small populations.
Shapes are striking individual variations of individual plants.

Plants in the lowest category – form – are often important to the grower because they can be attractive standouts. For the development of new species it is more the subspecies and varieties that are of interest.

If they differ only in characteristics such as color, one speaks of a forma, which is also often denoted by fma. or f. is abbreviated. In our example species there is an almost white color form that has been given the addition albiflorum . The addition forma (fma., f.) is not written in italics, but albiflorum is.

Phragmipedium schlimii forma albiflorum

Phragmipedium schlimii fma. albiflorum

Phragmipedium schlimii f.

A variety differs more from the true species than a form. This is then written as var., also not in italics and lower case. In our example, Phragmipedium manzurii , previously classified as a separate species, was recently downgraded to a variety:

Phragmipedium schlimii var. manzurii

Natural hybrids

It occasionally happens that two species of a genus are native to the same distribution area and are pollinated by the same insects. As a result, natural hybrids (crossbreeds inthe nature) arise. In order to identify these as such, the nomenclature provides that the mathematical sign of multiplication or times × is placed between the generic names and the names of the hybrids. If one writes about a hybrid that has developed in nature, then the hybrid name that follows is also written in lower case.

Staying with our example, let’s take a natural hybrid with Phragmipedium schlimii, which shares an area with Phragmipedium andreettae in places. A cross that may result is called a daguense and is placed after an × and written in lower case. Both genus and hybrid names are then written in italics:

Phragmipedium × daguense


Horticulturally produced hybrids of a genus can be entered into a global register with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the UK once a new cross flowers for the first time. The breeder of the orchid is free to choose the name of this new hybrid, with no limits to the imagination. These hybrid names are always capitalized rather than italicized. Staying with our example with Phragmipedium schlimii, here we take the widely used hybrid with Phragmipedium besseae called Hanne Popow. The genus name is again written in italics, but the hybrid name is not:

Phragmipedium Hanne Popow

cultivars and clones

If a plant in cultivation has a particularly beautiful flower that stands out from the usual ones, these are often selected by breeders and then also given a cultivar name. This is always capitalized and set in 2 single quotation marks (‘Xxx’). Here, too, there are no limits to the imagination when it comes to naming. Only those plants that have exactly the same genetic material carry this cultivar name. This means they must be parts of the original plant or clones from meristem propagation. It is then written as follows:

Phragmipedium schlimii ‘Graue’

(See also: Plants and )

Prize-winning plants

Large orchid associations in the world, such as the DOG, regularly offer table evaluations where cultivated plants can be presented and evaluated. These plants receive a cultivar name from the owner and, after an award has been issued, may also include this in the name. The awards are always abbreviated. First comes the medal achieved, then a slash and then the Orchid Society that awarded the prize. It then looks like this:

Phragmipedium schlimii ‘Graue’ SM/DOG

This plant was therefore awarded a silver medal in a table evaluation by the German Orchid Society. Gold, silver and bronze medals – abbreviated as GM, SM and BM in the DOG – are awarded for particularly beautifully shaped and/or colored flowers, for a particularly large number of flowers or a particularly well-cultivated plant.

A big thank you goes to Mr. Hermann Voelckel, who supported us with his expertise in revising the site.