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Vol. 12(9), pp. 5-11The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalSeptember 2011

The Orchid Names: What They Are and Why They Change

R J Ferry

As plant names change, we do sometimes run across problems communicating with each other about the same plant! Let's take a brief look at plant names and a few of the whats and whys of plant naming, and see if we can bring just a little clarity into the situation.


One publication lists a plant seedling of Stanhopea guttata for sale for $10. Another lists a seedling Stanhopea guttata var. schilleriana at $20. Still a third vendor says he has no seedlings of Stanhopea guttata, but does have ones of S. oculata and S. guttulata for $20. This third vendor also has seedlings of S. lindleyi, S. minor, and S. bucephalus for $15 each. Shipping charges are the same from all three vendors. You'd like to have a couple of different Stanhopea seedlings, but would rather not go over $30. What is your best buy, and from which vendor do you purchase? You decide to buy one S. oculata plant, but which other one would be a good choice?


One of the first things we do is to check our library! In our library literature, we find S. guttata is an obsolete name, and that the accepted name is really S. oculata! Now, checking our library under S. oculata we find the synonyms (obsolete names) below that correct name:

S. oculata (Loddiges) Lindley, Gen. Sp. Orch. Pl. 158, 1832. Summer. (I, H) Mexico; Belize; El Salvador; Guatemala; Honduras; Nicaragua; Costa Rica; Panama; Venezuela; Colombia; Brazil.

Ceratochilus oculatus Loddiges, Bot. Cab. 18: t. 1764. 1832.
Stanhopea bucephalus Lindl., Gen & Sp. Orch. Pl. 157, 1832.
Stanhopea lindleyi Zuccar. in Bot. Reg. 24: Misc. p. 3, 1838.
Stanhopea oculata (Lodd.) Ldl. var. barkeriana Ldl. in Bot. Reg. 25: Misc. p. 69, 1837.
Stanhopea guttulata Lindl. in Bot. Reg. 29: Misc. p. 75, 1843.
Stanhopea oculata var. lindleyi Zuccar. ex Lindl., Fol. Orch. Stanh. 3, 1832.
Stanhopea guttata C. Koch in Allgem. Gartenzeit 364, 1858.
Stanhopea ornatissima Lem. in Ill. Hortic. 9: t. 325, 1862.
Stanhopea oculata var. guttulata Rchb. f. in Walp. Ann. Bot. Syst. 6: 587, 1863.
Stanhopea cymbiformis Rchb. f., Xenia Orch. 2: 84, t. 124. 1865.
Epidendrum cornutum Sessé & Moc., Fl. Mex. 225, 1887.
Stanhopea oculata var. crocea Regel in Ind. Sem. Hort. Petrop. 17: 15, 1898.
Stanhopea oculata var. geniculata Klinge in Act. Hort. Petrop. 17: 143, 1898.
Stanhopea purpusii Schltr. in Orchis 10: 186, 1916.
Stanhopea minor Schltr. in Notizbl Bot. Mus. Berlin 6: 483, 1917.

We don't see any S. guttata var. schilleriana listed, so we do a little checking under that name, and what we find is that S. guttata var. schilleriana is a synonym for Stanhopea maculosa,...a completely different species altogether!


Buy one plant from the first vendor for $10 and one from the second vendor at $20, and, as soon as your plants arrive, change each name tag to reflect the currently correct name of each species! You've bought one S. oculata and one S. maculosa! Your use of the library saved you both time and money! You might have bought two plants of the same species and paid too much for each one, but as they're seedlings, your buying error wouldn't have been discovered until they flowered three or four years later!

The dirty little secret in all of this is that vendors quite often buy plants from other individuals whose orchid knowledge may be limited-to-none, but who, in the interests of selling a plant, will be all-too-eager to slap some sort of a name tag on it! Depend on your library, and be a little wary of many vendors unless they're the sort who have flowered the parent plant, raised seedlings, and have a few years of experience in the orchid world!


In the early years of orchid exploring, many a plant was shipped in, and many a taxonomist examined and described new species. However, considering the variations in and between species, and communication problems, errors were made. As time went on -- subsequent botanists made corrections as more plants were examined and -- frankly -- more was learned about how to classify plants. In this case, the gold mine in a search of the literature would be when the orchidist began looking at the literature for Stanhopea oculata, but all those synonyms don't really answer the typical question: Why do botanical names change? The answer, given over the years in the long conversation of botany, is that as we learn more about a species, it's name may change because we have learned to define it more clearly.

Basically, we humans are trying to put some order to our universe in order to understand both it and ourselves. To relegate everything to simple "faith" is to close our minds to our ability to reason and close both eyes and minds to reading the stories written in the earth itself. This was essentially the stance of the so-called "dark" ages. All necessary knowledge was "known," and to question was heresy. A dictatorship is a dictatorship be it religious or political! It stifles free thinking and seeks to make robots of humans.

Darwin's thinking was revolutionary. It dared to suggest the earth was over 6,000 years old,...and that species evolved naturally as they adapted to the earth's changing environments. Indeed, much religious opposition to evolutionary biology remains, but we'll not dig into that thicket here.

Linnaeus was one of many who was trying to put some order to the great diversity of life forms he encountered, not just plants. His solution was an artificial one (i.e. not as species actually evolved), but it provided (and in many respects still provides) a relatively easy-to-understand system, and in the early days when we knew much less about the genome, an imperfect system was much to be preferred to outright chaos!

Essentially, Linnaeus named things as he saw them. His trump card was the binomial system; a simple system. For instance, living in Sweden, epiphytes were scarce-to-unknown, and he classed (lumped) any plant that grew on another plant into Epidendrum (Epi-on a, and dendros-plant).

Fig. 1. Prosthechea cochleata 'Más bonita.' Pl#140606-17, DSC_2333, Tues-15Apr08.

Let's take one example Linnaeus originally named Epidendrum cochleatum "habitat: America." (Fig. 1). Unlike many, this name lasted into the 20th Century until Dressler (1961) transferred it into the genus Encyclia, because this species had pseudobulbs, and members of Epidendrum (as currently defined) do not have pseudobulbs. Thus it became Encyclia cochleata (proper Latin), and remained thus until Wes Higgins (1997, published 1998) transferred it to Prosthechea where it sits today, as Prosthechea cochleata (L.) W.E.Higgins. Why? Members of Encyclia present the labellum downward (for an insect pollinator), but members of Prosthechea retain it upward as they're hummingbird pollinated (along with other structural differences in the plant members). Basically, that's it, and to know why it was transferred; what the reasoning was, one has to read the publication(s) and understand the logic of the taxonomist(s) making the changes!

In 1753 Linnaeus identified a species as Satyrium viride. Over the years, generations of botanists published their opinions; modifying its name and positioning within the orchid family.

Fig. 2. Coeloglossum viride, (L.) Hartm. 1820; Image from OrchidWiz, Fri-16Sept11.

Satyrium viride 1753
Habenaria viridis 1813
Gymnadenia viridis 1817
Coeloglossum viride 1820 (Fig. 2)
Chamorchis viridis 1827
Platanthera viridis 1829
Himantoglossum viride 1830
...and finally as Dactylorhiza viridis 1997

Some of these botanists possibly were wrong, but note that in each instance, the published opinion focused on defining the position of the genus in the orchid family, not whether or not it was a valid species. In the long conversation of botany, each generation corrects according to the light it has, and each definition is subjected to the botanical world. Nothing in the literature is ever discarded. As long as the literature itself is not lost, the logic (good or bad) is retained as an example of the thinking of an individual at a particular point in time, and remains subject to criticism by the botanists of the world for that present time and all future times! Whether this or that published opinion is "accepted" over time depends on its acceptance not by this or that "authority," but by the botanical world in general. The 1997 opinion of Bateman, Pridgeon, and Chase is the one currently listed as "accepted" by Kew, but it remains so will depend on testing the studies of future botanists, their published reasoning(s), and what is learned over time!

At this point one begins to realize the importance of having access to the literature of an extensive library, and the tragedy of the loss of literature due to the apocalyptic horsemen of fire, fear, pestilence, war, religious and political extremism, and other evils periodically bent on destroying the past for whatever reasons of an ephemeral present.

The question arises regarding what characteristics are (evolutionarily) significant in classifying? These are many, but we will peruse only a few, not necessarily in their order of importance. Certainly the position of the species with respect to others in a properly derived DNA placement diagram; plant reproductive parts, and the overall vegetative structure, all these and more are closely examined. Characteristics of next-to-little-or-no importance include flower color, or whether an occasional plant specimen is taller or shorter than others, and - for the most part - root shapes.

There are advanced college courses that deal with such specialized areas as grass taxonomy, sunflower taxonomy, and so forth. However, very few academic courses concentrate on orchids because the academic market for studying the orchid family is scant. It's a paradox that this is the case for the family having the greatest (by far) number of species of all the flowering plants, but this is the case. Money for research tends to flow toward studying those plants used for food, buildings, medicines, smoked, worn, or other such "direct" uses.

If color is not necessarily a good way to classify orchids, what are a few of the ways to tell one species from another, or even a few of the benchmarks separating genera? It's already been noted that members of the genus Epidendrum are (among other charactistics) "reed-stemmed" plants lacking pseudobulbs. What might be a few other "reasonably" obvious examples?

Fig. 3. Paphiopedilum fairrieanum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx1180.26

Fig. 3a. Paphiopedilum fairrieanum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0180-17

Fig. 4. Paphiopedilum venustum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Dig. #xx0181-38. sterile staminode, pollen, & ventral (fertile) staminode.

Fig. 4a. Paphiopedilum venustum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Dig. #xx0879-6.

Within Paphiopedilum, some less-than-easily-seen structures differentiate one species from another. The issue of this past month noted two paph species from Nepal: P. fairrieanum (Fig. 3) (Fig. 3a) and P. venustum (Fig. 4) (Fig. 4a). Figures display flowers and, with floral segments dissected away, the sterile staminode, beneath which are the pollen masses, below which (within the floral pouch) is the fertile staminode. Structural differences in the staminode/column/ovary complex are of different species within the same genus.

Fig. 5. Paphiopedilum acmodontum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0379-1.

Fig. 5a. Paphiopedilum acmodontum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0473-37.

Considering another species, Paphiopedilum acmodontum, we note there can be variances in floral color and the overall floral display in flower of the same species (Fig. 5) (Fig. 5a).

Fig. 6. Paphiopedilum acmodontum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0581-3.

Fig. 6a. Paphiopedilum acmodontum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0581-16.

The flowers of P. acmodontum in the figures shown appear to vary somewhat, but the staminode complex (Fig. 6) (Fig. 6a), remains the same when flowers of the same species are analyzed critically.

Fig. 7. Paphiopedilum gratrixianum. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx1278-18a

Fig. 7a. Paphiopedilum gratrixianum. Digital #170106-1. (R. Ferry); Note 1. the ventral (fertile) staminode is shown bearing freshly installed pollen; Note 2. The ovary has been excised to show embryos present.

Fig. 8. P. gratrixianum flower. Photo from the Archives of J. Asher, Jr.; Digital #xx0181-34.

The final figures (Fig. 7) (Fig. 7a) (Fig. 8) show Paphiopedilum gratrixianum. The flower; is dissected laterally; and the column and infertile and fertile staminodes are exposed. The nodule atop the sterile staminode is not pollen. It is a staminodal growth typical of this species.

While there are 80+ Paphiopedilum species currently accepted, only a few have been displayed here to illustrate the anatomical differences of the staminode complexes. The dissection and critical photography of terrestrial species is encouraged. Far too few critical photographs of anatomical work are available!

Copyright © 2011 R J Ferry