Orchid Nomenclature – exactly what does that high-sounding expression mean? In much simpler, easily understood language, it means The Naming of Orchids. I’ve long campaigned on behalf of Orchid Nomenclature and I welcome this opportunity to further my policies, as the senator once said.

How did orchids get their names? Here we are dealing with two branches of Botany – pure Botany and Practical Horticulture, each of which has responsibility for official orchid names. The prime mover in this activity is the science of Botany, which concerns itself only with the naming and recording of species. Hybrids hold no interest for Botanists. None at All! This unimportant side issue is therefore left to the Horticulturalists.

There is no argument to the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Of course the species came first, so they go first in the naming. When a new species is discovered, it simply must be named to avoid confusion. Ideally speaking, that is. In practice, however, it is a thorough, Saturday-evening, ocean-going disaster. To that branch of Botany known as Taxonomy is delegated the task of “correctly” naming a new plant species – placing it in an appropriate Genus, then giving it its specific name. The members responsible for this activity are appropriately known as Taxonomists.

Either or both portions of the identification are expected to allot some of the plant’s growth habits, its physical peculiarities (if any) and possibly the name of the discoverer. All in Latin for implied authenticity. That’s quite a lot of information to be contained in a succinct identity. We can use the Australian native orchid species Dendrobium linguiforme as an example. Dendrobium translates as growing on a tree, while linguiforme means reminiscent of a tongue. The discoverer missed out in this case but Dendrobium cuthbertsonii imparted due recognition. And these two examples will suffice. Of course, the great majority of us peasants who actually grow orchids for fun have neither the knowledge nor the interest in making Latin a part of our lexicon. So we do our best to accept the scientific effort. Only thing is, they made a lot of mistakes over the years – mistakes that we will discuss later.

Now, the hybrids. First there were two species, which some enthusiast chose to marry together to make a primary hybrid. If the two species were in the same genus, the genus of the hybrid remained the same but if the two species were in different (but compatible) genera, then a manufactured genus name was required. Here is our first departure from the botanical umbrella of authority. The optimist who made the cross had the right to create his own name for his achievement. He could combine part or all of the genus names of the parents in such a way as to roll easily off the tongue to create a new man-made genus, e.g. Epicattleya (abbreviated Epicat.), for a combination of Epidendrum and Cattleya. For the second or specific section of the name he can call it Epicat. Maurie or Epicat. Bluebottle, or just about anything he wishes. Then he submits the required information to the Royal Horticultural Society for registration of that hybrid. Because no two siblings from that cross will be the same, anyone who acquires one may select a clonal name of his choosing, which is of no concern to the RHS. But all divisions of a particular clone must carry the clonal name of that plant – Epicat. Bluebottle ‘Flame’, for example.

More recently multi-generic hybrids involving up to seven different genera have been made. This posed a problem for the RHS. Until the introduction of three genera combinations, combination names could generally be handled. For example, Brassavola X Laelia X Cattleya became Brassolaeliocattleya or Blc. for short. When a fourth genus was added, as with the introduction of Sophronitis, it became too ponderous to handle, so a new system of naming complex man-made hybrids became necessary. A simple suffix – ara – was tacked onto a proper name, possibly the breeder’s name or that of a friend. In the case of Brassavola X Laelia X Cattleya X Sophronitis the new genus became Potinara (Potin-ara). There are currently over 230 multi-generics ending in -ara.

Now we must go back to the Botanist/Taxonomist and his species. Over the couple of hundred years of orchid exploration and collection, detailed information was not always readily available, so mistakes were made, by the thousand. These mistakes necessarily had to be corrected – we have to admit that. But an example of the turmoil caused can best be illustrated by looking at the horticultural name Blc. (for short). Right out of left field the Taxonomists changed the genus name Brassavola to Rhyncolaelia – no consultation with us at all. What should we do? Accept Rhyncolaeliolaeliocattleya? And how would we abbreviate that? And how would we correct the RHS record of hybrids? And how would we change the thousands upon thousands of plant labels around the world? Even if a mere two or three hybrids have been registered with parents that were later the subject of renaming by Taxonomists, the record cannot be altered retrospectively. Because very few of us growers of orchids are botanists on the side, in order to preserve some sort of order in our hobby or our commercial business, we are therefore obliged to follow the RHS ruling of merely noting botanical change but retaining the obsolete name for record purposes.

Please permit me to make a cynical observation, with no malice aforethought. It is interesting to note that, in a general sense all these multitudinous errors are corrected by the simple expedient of waiting till the previous namer had been comfortably dead for about fifty years and no longer in a position to defend his original naming and then just change the darn thing! Could I mention Odontoglossum bictoniense? That’s now Lemboglossum bictoniense. No, wrong again. Now it’s Rhyncostele bictoniense! But we will, if you don’t mind, stay with the RHS and continue to use Odontoglossum when naming its hybrids.

Finally, ALL genus names must begin with a capital letter and all species epithets must begin with a lower case letter. ALL hybrid names must begin with a capital letter. Clonal names of any particular species or hybrid must begin with a capital letter and be enclosed in single quotes, for example, Cattleya loddigesii ‘Impassionata’ and Laeliocattleya Mini Purple ‘Tamami’.