Saturday, September 24, 2016

What is a phalaenopsis? It might not be what you think

Phalaenopsis display at the 2016 New York Orchid Show

What is a Phalaenopsis?  If you are an orchid enthusiast, then at first this question might seem a little too simple.  After all, the Phalaenopsis is probably the most iconic orchid.  If you search google images for 'orchid', 7 out of the first 10 image results depict Phalaenopsis flowers. It's what I first think of when someone says 'orchid'.
What a Phalaenopsis orchid typically looks like: Phalaenopsis OX Black Face 'OX 1647'

What we typically refer to as a "Phalaenopsis orchid" are the myriad hybrids that belong to the Phalaenopsis genus. This classification encompasses approximately 60 species. Also known as the 'Moth orchid' or the 'Butterfly orchid' they are a colorful, varied, long-flowering and easy-to-grow plants that are a favorite among hobbyists and breeders alike. There are more than 35,000 Phalaenopsis hybrids listed in the International Orchid Registry, and nearly 100 new hybrids are added every month!

However, over time, I've come across orchid species that bear the name "phalaenopsis" which do not actually have much relation at all to the Moth Orchid.  

I wanted to find out, just how many such orchid species are named 'phalaenopsis'? Turns out there are Four. 

Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis
Caucaea phalaenopsis
Dendrobium phalaenopsis
Miltoniopsis phalaenopsis

This made me curious about what these orchids might have in common that they all earned the same species name?  Do they resemble the Moth orchid more than other species in their genus?  I decided to briefly profile each of these "Not phalaenopsis" phalaenopsis species and see what came up.

Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis
These flowers are weird. They look nothing like the Phalaenopsis genus, and app they smell like "dead, rotting mice".  Turns out this orchid was named not for its flowers, but rather for its large leaves. This species was discovered in 1937 in New Guinea.

Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis
Image credit: Image,  by Orchidgalore (Flickr gallery)
Bulbophylum phalaenopsis
Image credit: Image, Stefano (Flickr gallery)

Caucaea phalaenopsis (aka Oncidium phalaenopsis)
Before today, I've never even heard of an orchid genus called "Caucaea". These orchids are closely related to Oncidiums.  In fact Caucaea and Oncidium are so closely related, that "Oncidium phalaenopsis" is another name for the same species. Caucaea phalaenopsis grows at high elevations in Ecuador, where it was first described in 1869.
Caucaea phalaenopsis (aka Oncidium phalaenopsis)
Image credit: Image, by Dogtooth77 (Flickr gallery)
If I squint and ignore the typical oncidium flower shape, I can definitely see how the color pattern of these flowers evokes those of Phalaenopsis hybrids.

Dendrobium phalaenopsis
This is clearly another species that was named for its resemblance to common phalaenopsis hybrids. This species goes under a number of different names, including Dendrobium biggibum, Vappodes phalaenopsis, The Cooktown Orchid, and The Mauve Butterfly Orchid. This orchid is native to Queensland Australia, where it was discovered in 1852.
Dendrobium phalaenopsis
Image credit: Image, by Stefano (Flickr gallery)

Miltoniopsis phalaenopsis (aka Miltonia phalaenopsis)
This flower has almost the same color patterning as Caucaea phalaenopsis, and likely was similarly named for that reason. It was discovered in the cloud forests of Colombia in 1854.
Miltoniopsis phalaenopsis (aka Miltonia phalaenopsis)
Image credit: Image, by Quimbaya (Flickr gallery)
While none of these flowers are perfect doppelgangers of the Phalaenopsis genus, they clearly do have enough features in common to explain why they were named this way. 

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