Anatomy of an Orchid

In the orchid world, there are many different varieties available and each has its own slightly different makeup and anatomy. Today, I wanted to discuss the different parts that make up an orchid. It is important to know the terms so that if you notice anything abnormal happening to your orchid, you can use the appropriate term online to work out what is wrong.

Let’s start at the beginning…(and now I have the Sound of Music playing in my head…).

All orchids have some structures that are the same, for instance roots, leaves and flower spikes. However, they can behave slightly different from one plant to the next. Other structures vary, the main one being the point from where all parts of the orchid grow – the heart of the orchid if you will.


Some roots vary in the way they look, but all function the same. The roots are thin, almost hair-like but are actually coated with velamen. In Phalaenopsis orchids, the velamen is very thick and fleshy. In Oncidium orchids for example, the coating is a lot thinner and is white rather than grey / green. All root structures help to anchor the orchid either to the soil or tree in their natural environment, and absorb water to keep it hydrated. There are a few species of orchid that have aerial roots, the main one being the Phalaenopsis orchid. These are the strange roots that grow away from the potting media and seem to want to wander off on their own.


These aerial roots are the orchids ‘backup’ root system. If the roots in the pot are weak, damaged or rotting, then the aerial roots will absorb water instead. I have found some websites that suggest you can cut the aerial roots if they become too unsightly. I personally, wouldn’t recommend cutting any roots unless they are damaged in some way or are no longer viable.


All plants need leaves in order to photosynthesise and produce its own food. With orchids, the leaves can vary from plant to plant but they all function the same. Phalaenopsis orchids have thick leaves that are fairly rigid and difficult to bend (don’t try it – it’ll end in tears!), whilst Dendrobium Nobile orchids and Oncidium type orchids for example, have leaves that are thin and flexible.

There are some variations though even between two of the same type of orchid. For example, some of my Phalaenopsis orchids have dark green leaves with a slight purple tinge at the ends, whilst others are overall a brighter green. It depends on the plant; they are all individual, just like us. Over time you will know what is normal for your orchid, so don’t worry if you look at the leaves of your orchids now and think they don’t look the same.

Stems, Pseudo-bulbs and Canes

Stems are usually found in orchids that only grow upwards i.e. Phalaenopsis, Vanda, Sarcochilus etc. All their structures are produced from a single point on the orchid.

However, pseudo-bulbs (as pictured below) grow in a linear fashion and are copies of each other. All are connected by rhizomes. With these structures, each pseudo-bulb is able to produce its own roots, leaves and flower spikes.


Canes are essentially tall pseudobulbs. Dendrobium orchids are the main example of an orchid with canes. From one cane, leaves, roots and flowers are produced, but the canes themselves spread out in the pot, just like Oncidium type orchids.

Flower Spike

Most orchids produce a flower spike when the right conditions are provided. Dendrobium Nobile orchids produce flowers directly from the cane, and so are one exception to this rule. Some flower spikes will take what feels like an eternity to develop and produce blooms, whilst others are surprisingly fast. My Phalaenopsis orchids are the keenest to get to blooming stage, but some of my Oncidium type orchids do like to make me wait. It depends on the orchid and its genetic makeup as to how and when it will produce flowers, but the wait is absolutely worth it.

All orchids are different, but within a species there are also differences. It’s a case of getting to know your orchid in order to understand its growth habits, sometimes its quirks.

Happy growing!




4 thoughts on “Anatomy of an Orchid”

  1. Dear Clare, really like the mixture of T.L.C. / Personification of your babies and good solid knowledge.

    Will be visiting again, Berenice.


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