Orchids are a surprisingly easy plant for beginning gardeners to take on, especially once you’ve learned the lingo. Below is a quick glossary for getting started:

With more than 35,000 species to study and grow, orchids attract some very devoted gardeners. “I think it’s something about the incredible diversity of orchids, and how much there is to know about them that really attracts people,” says horticulturist Bryn Fleming, pictured above, who tends the more than 1,200 orchids in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s collection. “They have so many interesting adaptations that they’re a great plant for people who want to dive deep.” 

Cattleya: These show-stopping blooms are a classic corsage flower–one of the special occasion uses that made orchids so sought after during the Victorian era. There’s even a term—“orchidelirium”—to describe the obsession that first fueled 19th century enthusiasts to travel the globe in search of new and undiscovered varieties of orchids.  

Inflorescence: This is the flowering portion of the plant, which can include the whole flower spike, or stems where flowers will emerge. After a flower emerges and fades, horticulturists at Como typically trim the flower stalk to encourage the orchid to bloom again.  

Epiphyte: Not all orchids need a pot of soil to survive. Epiphytic orchids like one shown above, live on the surface of other plants and trees, but don’t receive any nourishment from it. An orchid that grows on rocks is called a lithophyte

Aerial roots: Those stalky stick-up structures are aerial roots–or air roots–that many orchids depend on to absorb moisture and nutrients. Beginning orchid growers sometimes assume they’re a sign an orchid needs repotting, but in fact, they’re a sign of healthy growth that can be left undisturbed. 

Pseudobulb: These pod-like “false bulbs” near the base of the plant stem can come in many shapes and sizes, but they all function as a food and storage unit to keep the orchid plant healthy during droughts or other environmental changes. 

Monopodial: Most orchids are sympodial orchids, which grow laterally along a rhizome, but vanilla vines and the popular Phalaenopsis plant are both examples of monopodial orchids, which grow from a single vertical stem. One easy way to tell the difference: monopodial orchids don’t have pseudobulbs. 

Labellum: The round, pink underbelly of the Lady Slipper orchid Bryn is holding is called the “labellum,” which means lip. The most colorful, eye-catching part of most orchids, the labellum evolved to become the perfect landing pad for bees, birds and other pollinators.

Keiki: The Hawaiian word for “baby” is also used to describe a new orchid that grows from the “mother” orchid. These little offshoots are clones of the original orchid, and can be separated from the mother plant when the roots and leaves are a few inches long. 

Velamen: This corky, sponge-like covering of the roots of epiphytic orchids helps prevent water loss. Because velamen only absorbs water and can’t release it, new orchid gardeners need to guard against over-watering their plants. 

Did You Know?

Thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s orchid collection is one of the best in the Midwest. Every year, private donations help to create the ideal growing conditions for these treasured plants, rooting out plant pests and viruses, and replenishing Como’s collection with new acquisitions from around the world. Your support also assists in worldwide conservation efforts through the Conservatory’s membership in the Orchid Conservation Alliance, which helps to fund orchid reserves in Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. 

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