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