Native Orchid Names

By Chuck McCartney

Naming conventions
Scientific names of naturally occurring plants (and animals, too) seem to “scare” the average person when they really shouldn’t. In botany, the first part of the italicized name (the genus) is always capitalized. The second part (the species) is always lowercase (in modern usage), even when it’s derived from a proper name. Thus, the Dollar Orchid of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties is Prosthechea boothiana, even though the species is named in honor of William Beattie Booth, the grower for wealthy 19th Century English orchidist Sir Charles Lemon. (The rules for names of man-made hybrids and cultivated varieties are different.)

These seemingly strange-looking plant names are made up primarily of Latin or Greek words, with some names derived from the names of people or places.
But if you understand the meanings of these plant names, they might not be so intimidating. Here are the meanings of the scientific names for some of South Florida’s more well-known species of tropical epiphytic (tree-growing) orchids:

Epidendrum nocturnum

Epidendrum nocturnum 
The name for this largest-flowered Florida member of this genus comes from the Greek words epi (upon) and dendron (tree) and literally means “upon a tree,” referring to the fact that most of the 1,400-plus members of this New World group grow as epiphytes, using a tree as a support. The species name (epithet), nocturnum, for the Night-Scented Epidendrum comes from the Latin word for “night,” referring to the alluring incense-like nocturnal fragrance emitted by the flowers to entice their moth pollinators through the darkness.

Encyclia tampensis
Encyclia tampensis 
This most common of South Florida’s epiphytic orchids takes its genus name from the Greek words meaning “to encircle,” indicating how the side lobes of the lip (the odd petal) of the flower grow around the bloom’s central reproductive structure (called a column) in many species of this New World group.  The species epithet denotes the Tampa Bay region from which the first plant of this species was sent to England, where it was described in 1847 (as an Epidendrum). This is the species often commonly called the Florida Butterfly Orchid, although, oddly, it looks nothing like a butterfly and is not pollinated by butterflies.

Prosthechea cochleata; photo by Shirley Denton
Prosthechea cochleata
This genus name for the Clamshell Orchid may not look familiar to longtime orchid enthusiasts because it previously was placed in Epidendrum and later Encyclia. Prosthechea comes from the Greek for an appendage or addition, referring to the appendage of tissue located on the back of the reproductive column of the flower. The species epithet comes from the Greek word for “shell” (think of marine cockleshells), referring to the upward-pointing, dark-purplish lip of the flower, which has a distinctly clamshell-like appearance.

Oncidium ensatum
Oncidium ensatum
This species is one of the exceptions to the word “epiphytic.” Most members of this big New World genus, which now numbers approximately 317 species due to recent taxonomic realignments, are epiphytes. However, in Florida, this species is generally found growing on (not in) the ground, even though on rare occasions it has been seen growing epiphytically as well. The genus name comes from the Greek word oncos, meaning a swelling or tumor (also the source for the word “oncologist,” a doctor specializing in the treatment of tumors). For the orchids, the name refers to the callus, or swelling of tissue, near the top of the flower’s lip, which functions in the orchid’s pollination mechanism. This native of Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas has long been known as Oncidium floridanum (named for the state of Florida), but now orchid scientists believe it is the same as the Mexican/northern Central American Oncidium ensatum. That species name comes from the Latin word for a type of sword, referring to the long, sword-like leaves on the large plants of this beautiful yellow-flowered orchid. 

Ionopsis utricularioides
Ionopsis utricularioides 
Both names of this pretty little Oncidium relative compare it to the flowers of other plants. The genus name comes from the Greek words ion (violet) and opsis (having the appearance or likeness of) because to German botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth, who created the genus in 1815, the flowers resembled some of the true violets in the genus Viola. (Remember that so-called African Violets in the gesneriad genus Saintpaulia are unrelated to true violets.)

Swedish botanist Olof Swartz’s 1788 species name for what he called Epidendrum utricularioides compares the flowers of this orchid to those of some species of carnivorous Bladderwort in the genus Utricularia. Worldwide, many Utricularia species do have pretty bilaterally symmetrical, orchid-like flowers. The oides suffix on the end of the orchid’s species name is similar to -opsis in the generic name and indicates a resemblance to something else.

Cyrtopodium punctatum
Cyrtopodium punctatum 
This largest of Florida’s tropical epiphytic orchids is commonly called the Cowhorn Orchid or Cigar Orchid because of the shape of the large, elongate pseudobulbs that, when leafless in the winter, do, indeed, resemble either of those well-known objects. This New World genus takes its name from a combination of the Greek words kyrtos (curved) and podion (little foot), referring to the curved “column foot” at the back of the reproductive column that connects it to the lip. The species epithet comes from the Latin word punctatus, meaning “pricked” or “spotted,” alluding to the prominently speckled flowers of the species.

Posted by Laurie Sheldon
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted


Hobo Botanist said…
Great article Chuck! Funny, you forgot to mention the etymology of the word Orchid :0
Anonymous said…
Excellent Article Chuck. Thanks, Anne, LMP Chair

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