“What’s a spike?” A glossary of orchid terms

At the NYBG 2010 Orchid Show

Learning about orchids can feel like learning a foreign language. When I first started surfing the internet for information about orchids and how to care for them, I felt a little dazed and confused; orchid lovers on forums were throwing around all sorts of terms that meant absolutely nothing to me. Over time these terms became a part of my vocabulary, and I want to share with you a glossary of the terms that I encounter most frequently when reading about orchids. So below is a list of terms that I wish I’d known when I got started with the hobby. Of course there are a million more terms out there to learn—the world of orchids is virtually endless—but this list should help you on your way to understanding these wonderful plants.

In alphabetical order:

Aerial Root: Roots that sprout outside of the growing medium (e.g., above the potting medium in houseplants).

Backbulb: A pseudobulb that has lost its leaves. Backbulbs, while still green, will continue to provide the plant with nourishment. Backbulbs can be used to propagate new plants from the original plant.

Bud: A swelling off the side or end of a spike that (usually) turns into a lovely bloom.

Bud blast: When a flower bud forms but does not open; instead it shrivels and falls off the spike. Bud blast can happen for any number of reasons, but is often due to a drastic change in environmental conditions. It’s really disappointing when this happens, but an orchid can certainly still thrive after bud blast.

Cane: This term refers to the stems of Dendrobium orchids. A cane is similar to a pseudobulb but is much more stalk-like in appearance. Depending on the type of Dendrobium, flowers will either bloom from nodes along the cane itself or from a spike that sprouts from the top of the cane.

Crown: The place where the orchid’s stem meets the roots. In monopodial orchids, this is where new leaves sprout from.

Epiphyte: An “air plant” that grows off of another plant like a tree trunk or an object like a rock. Basically, epiphytes are plants that do not grow in soil. Many orchids are epiphytes and therefore have aerial roots, which take in moisture and nutrients from the surrounding environment.

“Happy Sap”: Small beads of sticky sap that appear on parts of an orchid. In the absence of insects, this means that the plant is happy and is sending sugar to the area of the plant where the sap is visible. The presence of this sap can indicate that the orchid is gearing up to bloom!

Keiki: A new “baby” orchid plant that is produced asexually and grows from the original plant. Sometimes keikis grow from a node on a spike or cane, and sometimes they grow from the base of the plant (a “basal keiki”). Keikis can either be left on the mother plant or removed and repotted on their own once a few good roots have developed.

Medium: The type of substance in which an orchid grows. Just a few types of media for growing orchids are fir bark, sphagnum moss, lava rock, coconut husk chips, cork, and perlite. It’s best to select a medium (or combination of media) based on how and where a specific type of orchid grows in the wild. First Ray’s is an excellent source of information on choosing potting media for an orchid.

Monopodial: Meaning “one foot”, this term refers to orchids that grow upward from a single stem. Examples of such orchids are Phalaenopsis, Vanda, and Paphiopedilum.

Node: A swelling on an orchid spike. Orchids sometimes produce side shoots from nodes that are still healthy (i.e., green and plump).

NOID: An acronym for “no identification”. This is used for any orchid whose exact species is unknown. Most orchids available for sale at big box stores are NOID.

Pseudobulb: This is the storage reservoir on sympodial orchids such as Oncidiums, Cattleyas, Zygopetalums, and many, many other orchid genera. A pseudobulb is a part of the plant that can appear as a normal stem or a large, swollen growth. Leaves and – ultimately – spikes grow off of pseudobulbs. The pseudobulb stores water and nutrients that the plant needs to thrive.

Rhizome: The horizontal stem of an orchid that is usually found growing underground, but sometimes at or just above the surface. Rhizomes are responsible for producing new roots and shoots.

Sheath: A leaf pocket that holds one or more flower buds until they are ready to bloom. Some types of orchids that produce sheaths are Cattleyas and Paphiopedilums.

Side shoot: A new spike that sprouts from the node of an already established flower spike. Often produces more blooms!

Spike: No, not this guy. Spike is the term commonly used for an orchid’s flower stalk. The spike usually emerges from in between an orchid’s leaves or from an orchid’s crown. It can be easy to confuse a new flower spike with a new root; check out my earlier post for help differentiating the two.

Sympodial: Meaning “together feet”, this term refers to orchids that branch outward (laterally) from a single point rather than growing upwards like monopodial orchids. Orchids with pseudobulbs are sympodial and can have spikes emanating from multiple pseudobulbs on the plant simultaneously.

You may also like


  1. when I need top cut the spike , should I cut very close to the base? How close is close? I e was also advised
    to chasms change the place of the orchid to cooler temp . Whats your advise?

    1. Hi there. If you want to cut the spike near the base, I recommend doing so within about an inch from the bottom. If your orchid is a Phalaenopsis, cooler temps will actually encourage new spike growth but this doesn’t usually happen right away after an old spike has finished blooming. Just make sure to keep it out of direct sunlight and it should stay happy.

  2. This information is wonderful! Just have fallen in love with orchids in the past year. My new passion One in the office has a spike with future buds and one I just figured out from above pictures has 2 bud spikes on their way voila… Keep me in any newsletters for future communication love all the input above..

  3. I am editor of the Bundaberg Orchid Society newsletter and I request permission to use your “Glossary of Orchid Terms” in our newsletter. I would reproduce it over a number of editions. The newsletter is produced every month.

    Thank You

    Graham Price

  4. Hello,

    I am new to the orchid world. I have been taking care of my orchids for the past year and it seems that a spike is on its way the only issue is that instead of growing up its growing downward. A lot of people have suggested not to to touch nor replant it because the orchid might be affected, the spike is relatively new and I’m scared that if I touch it, it might break off. The spike is currently growing into the potting mix. What do you suggest for me to do?

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Kelsey, it’s not uncommon for a new spike to grow in a direction other than straight up. I personally haven’t seen any grow down into the potting mix, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. If it is indeed a spike, I imagine at some point it would right itself and start growing upward. Maybe it’s not getting enough light to orient itself toward?

      Spikes are quite delicate, so I’d recommend waiting to see if it begins to grow upward. It should, but if it doesn’t and you’re sure it’s a spike, you could very carefully try to pull it out of the potting mix (maybe using a chopstick, knitting needle, or other slim implement) so that it can hopefully start growing up.

      I hope that helps, good luck with it!

Leave a Reply