Orchid Nomenclature

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To be able to understand the names you see in an orchid catalogue and to be able to correctly write the name tags of your orchids, you need a basic understanding of orchid nomenclature, the system of naming orchids.

The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) defines a hierarchical structure into which all plants can be classified. Other organisms such as animals have their own equivalent naming system, but there are moves to amalgamate these codes so that all organisms can be named under a single code in the future. 

In addition, the International Code of Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants defines the naming structure for cultivated plants. This code is currently operated by the RHS and results in the Sanders list of orchid hybrids.

The levels of this hierarchy applicable to species orchids are:-

rank ending example
Kingdom   Plantae
Division phyta Spermatophyta
Subdivision phytina Magnoliophytina
Class opsida Liliopsida
Subclass idae Liliidae
Order ales Orchidales
Suborder ineae  
Family aceae Orchidaceae
Subfamily oideae Epidendroideae
Tribe eae Epidendreae
Subtribe inae Laeliinae
Genus   Cattleya
Species   intermedia
Subspecies (subsp or ssp)    
Variety (var)   alba
Subvariety (sub var)    
Form (f)    
Subform (subf)    

The ranks in bold are recognised by the ICBN as the major ranks. Not all ranks need be used to classify an organism. Only the ranks necessary are used, the bigger the grouping, the more ranks are used.

For naming orchid species, the ranks of Genus and Species must be used plus Variety when applicable. The ranks of subspecies, subvariety, form and subform are rarely used in naming orchids.

Next, some definitions which may make things a bit easier.

Species A taxonomic group with
Similar characteristics
reproduce in isolation from other groups
a single linage derived from a common ancestor

eg. Dendrobium bigibbum, Cattleya forbesii, etc.

Genus a group of species which trough their likeness are more closely related to each other than they are to other

eg. Cattleya, Dendrobium, Cymbidium, etc.

Variety A wild variant or subspecies which differs by growth habitat, size, etc.

eg. Dendrobium bigibbum var. compactum

Cultivar Any named individual and its’ vegetatively produced progeny. It does not include self-pollinated or cross-pollinated plants. ie. a particularly good example of an orchid may be given a cultivar name to uniquely identify that plant from other lesser quality plants of the same species. That plant and all its vegetatively produced progeny, eg. mericlones, and divisions, can use that cultivar name, but not sexually produced progeny, ie. from seed. All plants bearing the same varietal name should be identical and flower identically, excepting the normal seasonal and environmentally caused variations.



 Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflorum ‘Lemon Ice’

Dendrobium Generic Name
First Letter capitalised
speciosum Specific epithet
lower case
grandiflorum Varietal epithet
var. not italic, epithet in italics
‘Lemon Ice’ Cultivar epithet
Not Latin
In single quotes
not italics
First letters capitalised


Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflorum ‘Lemon Ice’

Dendrobium generic name (genus)
Dendrobium speciosum specific name (species)
Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflorum varietal name (variety)
Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflorum ‘Lemon Ice’ cultivar name (clone)

Note that for the cultivar name, the varietal epithet is optional. ie. it may or may not exist. Thus, the cultivar name may have three or four terms.

eg. Cattleya skinneri ‘Mistral’ is a valid cultivar name.

Also note that an orchid does not require a varietal or cultivar epithet if these do not apply. ie. Dendrobium speciosum is a valid name for an orchid which is not a named cultivar and is not a variety of the species.


Natural Interspecific Hybrids

Naturally occurring hybrids within a genus are often given a name.

Dendrobium x delicatum ‘Joy Bells’

Dendrobium Generic Name
First Letter capitalised
delicatum Collective epithet
lower case
‘Ajax’ cultivar epithet
Not Latin
In single quotes
not italics
First letters capitalised


  Dendrobium x delicatum ‘Joy Bells’

Dendrobium  generic name (genus)
Dendrobium x delicatum  collective name
Dendrobium x delicatum ‘Joy Bells’ cultivar name (clone)

Dendrobium x delicatum is a natural hybrid between Dendrobium kingianum and Dendrobium speciosum.

Note that the x is often omitted in practice, but should be included to be technically correct. The x should be lowercase.


Natural Intergeneric Hybrids

Naturally occurring hybrids between two different genus are often given a name.


x Laeliocattleya leeana ‘Picardy’

x Laeliocattleya  Hybrid-Generic Name
A combination of the two genus of the hybrid
First Letter capitalised
leeana Collective epithet
lower case
‘Picardy’ cultivar epithet
Not Latin
In single quotes
not italics
First letters capitalised


x Laeliocattleya leeana ‘Picardy’

x Laeliocattleya hybrid-generic name
x Laeliocattleya leeana collective name
x Laeliocattleya leeana ‘Picardy’ cultivar name (clone)

Note that the x is often omitted in practice, but should be included to be technically correct. The x should be lowercase.


Author Citations

In some publications, particularly scientific publications, the names of orchid species or natural hybrids will be suffixed with the the author who originally described the orchid. Due to the large number of taxonomic changes occurring with orchids and the same name being used by different authors for different orchids, the addition of the author ensures that the orchid to which the name refers is non-ambiguous.

Author names are generally abbreviated. Abbreviations have not been standardised in the past, but the ICBN recommends the use of Brummitt & Powell's Authors of plant names (1992). These standard abbreviations can be found at the IPNI, Author Query page.

In addition to the standard author abbreviations, you may also see other terms.  The most commonly encountered terms are:-

ex  published by

If a species is described by one person but published by another, ex is used to indicate this situation

et  and

may be used when joining two co-authors instead of &

() When an orchid is reclassified, the original author in put in parenthesis and the reclassifying author following.

The examples below will help with the correct usage of author citations.

Dendrobium linguiforme Sw.

Originally described by Olof or Olavo (Peter) Swartz 1760-1818 who has the standard abbreviation of Sw.
Dendrobium speciosum var. capricornicum Clemesha Originally described by Stephen Chapman Clemesha 1942- whose name is standardised to Clemesha.
Dendrobium curvicaule (F.M.Bailey) M.A.Clem. & D.L.Jones Originally described by Frederick Manson Bailey 1827-1915 but later reclassified to species level without name change by Mark Alwin Clements and David Lloyd Jones.
Dendrobium curvicaule (F.M.Bailey) M.A.Clem. et D.L.Jones The same example as the previous example except the alternate form of joining co-authors is used.
Dendrobium kingianum Bidwill ex Lindl. Originally published by John Lindley 1799-1865 but authored by John Carne Bidwill 1815-1853

Artificial Hybrids

Dendrobium Bridge of Allen ‘Premier’

Dendrobium Generic Name or Hybrid-Generic name
First Letter capitalised
Bridge of Allen Grex epithet
Not Latin
Not Italic
First Letter capitalised
‘Premier’ Cultivar epithet
Not Latin
In single quotes
not italics
First letters capitalised


Dendrobium Bridge of Allen ‘Premier’

Dendrobium generic name or
hybrid-generic name (genus)
Dendrobium Bridge of Allen grex name (grex)
Dendrobium Bridge of Allen ‘Premier’ cultivar name (clone)


A hybrid-generic name is created from the crossing of plants from two different genus and the hybrid-generic name is normally composed of a combination of the names of both genus.

eg. a Laeliocattleya is a hybrid of a Laelia and Cattleya

eg. a Potinara is a hybrid of Cattleya, Brassavola, Laelia and Sophronitis.

Note that there is no varietal epithet possible in a hybrids name.  Only species can have a varietal epithet.


Listed Parents

Orchids will often be written as a crossing of the parent plants. This is normally due to the hybrid not being a registered hybrid (a new hybrid is registered by completing the required forms and paying the required fees) or so the parent plants are individually listed. This is often done by nurseries when the parents are awarded plants thus making the children more likely to be high quality and thus making the seedlings more desirable.

Cattleya Duel Aura X Laelia Owenana

Cattleya Duel Aura Female parent
Laelia Owenana Male parent

Note that the female parent is always listed first when a hybrid name is written as the cross of the parents. Normally, when the genus of both parents is the same, the second occurrence of the genus is omitted. eg. Paph. bellatulum X delenatii



Although abbreviations for the generic name or hybrid-generic name are not part of the ICBN, the generic name or hybrid-generic name of orchids are often abbreviated in common use. Scientific literature will always use the ICBN naming system however, and use the full generic name or hybrid-generic name and never an abbreviation.

There are lists of ‘standard’ abbreviations for the genus and hybrid-genus in the orchid hybrid register of over 700 abbreviations. Most of the more common abbreviations are quickly memorised, although only the keenest grower could learn all 700.

Unfortunately, not all groups publishing these abbreviation lists agree on the abbreviations to be used, and, as these abbreviations do not form part of the ICBN, no body formally owns these abbreviations and can dictate the correct abbreviation to be used. Generally, however, most abbreviations will be the same in all lists. There are a few exceptions however, notably Dendrobium which have the abbreviations of Den and D in common use.

 Brassia B.
Brassolaelio-cattleya Blc.
Cattleya C.
Cymbidium Cym.
Dendrobium D. or Den.
Laelia L.
Miltonia Milt.
Oncidium Onc.
Phalaenopsis Phal.
Sophronitis Soph.
Vanda V.

For a list of abbreviations, refer to my links page.

Thus, some completed valid names would be:-

D. nobile var. sanderanum ‘Emily Hale’

Cym. Girl Crazy

C. mossiae var. wageneri



Orchids which are of exceptional quality, are unusual or exhibit outstanding features may be granted awards to signify their quality. To get an orchid awarded, the orchid normally must be of exceptional quality and grown to perfection.

There are many different award systems throughout the world, but the awards used in Australia by the AOC (Australian Orchid Council) are:-



Minimum Points

(out of 100 )



First Class Certificate


Appreciation Judging.

Accessed for

flower shape, colour, size, substance and texture
arrangement of inflorescence

Orchids are not necessarily judged on all criteria depending on its normal growth habit.


Award of Merit



Highly Commended Certificate



Award of Distinction


for outstanding distinctive feature
reasonable quality flowers


Certificate of Botanical Merit

Not Applicable

for orchids, species or natural hybrids, which are considered rare or unusual in cultivation.
only granted once for any species or natural hybrid and provides a benchmark against which future orchids of this type can be judged.


Award of Cultural Commendation


Awarded to grower, not orchid
orchid exhibits excellence of culture
Superior floriferousness, size robustness & cleanliness


Award of Cultural Merit


Awarded to grower, not orchid
orchid exhibits excellence of culture
Superior floriferousness, size robustness & cleanliness


Award of Cultural Excellence


Awarded to grower, not orchid
orchid exhibits excellence of culture
Superior floriferousness, size robustness & cleanliness


Award of Special Recognition   for outstanding feature or achievement relating to the culture of orchids not adequately covered by another award

    Awards are appended to the end of the orchid name. The name of the awarding society should also be appended to the award.

Cym. Cronulla ‘The Khan’ AM/AOS

Cym. Cronulla ‘The Khan’ AM/AOS cultivar name
AM Award
All capitals
No periods
If multiple awards, separate with a hyphen
AOS Awarding Society
All capitals
No periods
If multiple awarding societies, separate societies with a hyphen



Ploidy, although strictly not part of an orchid name, is often seen appended to the end of orchid names in orchid catalogues. Ploidy is the number of sets of chromosomes for the orchid. A normal orchid has two sets of chromosomes (2N), one set from each parent. Some orchids have more than the normal two sets, with three, four or even more sets of chromosomes.

Number of Chromosomes








Generally, orchid with more than two sets of chromosomes are more vigorous growers with larger more desirable flowers, hence a much more desirable orchid.

When the ploidy is specified in the orchid name, the chromosome set count is appended to the orchid name.

Slc. Tangerine Jewel ‘Southern Cross’ (4N)
Cultivar Name Slc. Tangerine Jewel ‘Southern Cross’
Ploidy (4N)


Now that you know all about orchid names and how to correctly write them, all that’s left to know about is Sanders. Sander & Sons Orchids of St Albans, England, started a system for the registration of orchid hybrids and published the first issue of Sanders in 1906. This became the international authoritative list of orchid hybrids and was taken over by the Royal horticultural Society in 1960 due to the workload involved. The RHS has continued to publish Sanders periodically ever since. There are now 8 volumes of Sanders containing all hybrids registered from 1854 to 1995 with the next volume due shortly. There is also now a CD version for use on your computer which includes all volumes plus numerous photos of awarded orchids from around the world.

Each Sanders volume contains:-

The list of orchid genera and intergeneric combinations
eg. BRASSOCATTLEYA (Bc.) = Brassavola x Cattleya


eg. CATTLEYA (C.) = Natural genus
x Brassavola = Brassocattleya
x Brassavola x Broughtonia = Stellamizutaara
x Brassavola x Laelia = Brassolaeliocattleya
There are currently 788 listed genera and combinations!
The list of standard abbreviations for generic names
eg. Bl. = Brassolaelia
Blc. = Brassolaeliocattleya
Ble. = Bletilla
There are only 749 abbreviations currently registered! For a complete list of abbreviations, see my links page.
The list of names and addresses of hybrid registrants
eg. Kushima Harold M. Kushima, 91-701 Makule Road, Ewa Beach, Oahu, Hawaii, HI 96706, USA.
There are hundreds and hundreds of registrants.
List of orchid hybrids
eg. Cattleya Princess Bells Empress Bells x Bob Betts Kushima 1959
x Estelle = Hawaiian Winter
x Francis T.C. Au = Irma Dulce
x Mary Ann Barnett = Memoria Kathleen Mooler
x Picasso = Picasso Bells
For each hybrid registration, the parent grex are listed together with the registrant. Next, all hybrids with this grex are listed. In this way, a hybrid registration can be located via its grex name and each of parents.

Due to the large numbers of grex, only those grex registered in the year range of the volume, eg. 1991-1995, are included together with the parentage of the grex with their crosses. Unfortunately, this means that to find a grex of interest, you may have to search several volumes to locate its entry.

Thus, the function of Sanders is to provide an authoritative list of hybrid genera. Thus, Sanders is the book to use if you wish to research the parentage of a hybrid or you wish to locate the grex name of a cross in your collection, or even if you just wish to check the spelling of your orchids name. (Surprisingly, about 10% of orchid names in the monthly plant competition are incorrect due to incorrect abbreviations, bad spelling, superseded names or failure to use the named grex instead of the parents.)

Sanders is available from the society library during meetings for research, but is a reference book and thus not available for loan. Sanders is the bible for orchid hybrids, so all members should be familiar with this valuable reference.

Graham Corbin


References: Handbook on Orchid Nomenclature and Registration - International Orchid Commission
International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ST LOUIS CODE) - International Association for Plant Taxonomy
Standards for Judging – Australian Orchid Council
What Orchid is That? – A Pridgeon
Growing Orchids – J. N. Rentoul
The Orchid Grower’s Manual – G Morrison


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