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Orchids ~ Up Close & Personal

 Braida_Olivia_10_Colmanara Wildcat Orchid

Colmanara ‘Wildcat’ Artist Title: “Wildcat”

From an Original Watercolor by O. M. Braida©2004


Orchids Up Close & Personal

“We Draw What We See So Others Can See Clearly” O.M.Braida

To create accurate scientific botanical art and illustrations, recording botanical structure precedes botanical portraiture. Understanding what we need to look for is the first step. Close observation of these elements allows for better depiction. In the Academy, we learn to take this one step further. Our golden rule is not only draw what we see but to do so in such a way that others will see more clearly. 

The following information will help you identify and understand orchids a little better.  There is even information for drawing your own orchid portrait.  Enjoy. God bless. OM


About Epiphytes

            Epiphytes are plants that root and perch on other plants or nonliving objects. Also, termed holoepiphytes, true epiphytes are plants that DO NOT root in soil. They complete their entire life cycle attached to a host plant and receive mineral nutrients from nonterrestrial sources. Note, that the genus Tillandsias, some species are holoepiphytes that lack roots entirely; these are called air-plants or atmospheric epiphytes, e.g., Spanish Moss, Tillandsias usneoides.

There are epiphytes that change in their life cycle. For example:

  1. First stage of a primary hemi-epiphyte begins life as an epiphyte and  later becomes rooted in soil.
  2. First stage of a secondary hemi-epiphyte begins life rooted in the soil and later as an epiphyte.

Seventy percent of all known epiphytes and hemi-epiphytes are in the monocotyledonous families of Orchidaceae, Araceae, and Bromeliaceae. Only about 10% of the epiphytic species are ferns. Approximately half of the known species of the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) are epiphytes native to the New World. The best-known plant of this family is the pineapple, Ananas comosus, which is terrestrial, not epiphytic.[1]

Epiphytic Orchids

In Orchidaceae, the largest family of epiphytes, familiar epiphytic orchids are CAM leaf succulents. Their pseudobulbs are aboveground, water- and carbohydrate-storage stems (basically corms) with inflated and succulent internodes. Pseudobulbs usually lack stomates, so they are not organs for net uptake of CO2 from the air. In the soft tissue of a pseudobulb, there may occur cells with special secondary thickening. These cells appear to play a role during water stress.

          Aerial roots have a specialized multiple epidermis, called a velamen, which plays some role in water uptake and restricting transpiration. The velamen is white or silvery when dry. Green (chlorophyllous) aerial roots may serve as photosynthetic organs. Some orchid genera have essentially no leaves and instead employ flattened photosynthetic roots.[2]

               Orchid Characteristics (The Basic Five)

Orchids are easily distinguished, as they share some very evident specialized characteristics, which are very often diagnostic. Specifically, there are five basic characteristics (a plant with four is an orchid) that help to identify orchids:

  1. Zygomorphic – The flower is bilaterally symmetric and resupinate.   (Flowers can be divided by only a single plane into two mirror-image  halves. The labellum petal is often visually the lowermost segment of the orchid flower.) Generally, zygomorphic flowers have petals of two  or more different shapes, sizes, and colors.
  2. A stiff waxy column containing the plant’s reproductive structure (stamens & carpels fused).
  3. The Rostellum (a gland that separates the pollinia from the stigmatic surface and thus prevents self-pollination while ensuring that visiting insects leave with pollinia).
  4. In most non-powdery, agglutinated pollinia (plural) (pollinium singular) from two to twelve.
  5. In nearly all, minute seeds, because they have no endosperm (stored carbohydrates needed for growth), require the aid of a fungus   to germinate.

Orchid Leaves

For the botanical artist, it is important to note that like most monocots, orchids have simple leaves with parallel veins, although some have a reticulate venation appearing inside and between the parallel veins (i.e., Vanilloidaea leaves). Orchid leaves usually alternate on the stem, often are arranged in folds like those of a fan (referred to as plicate). They do not have stipules.

Orchid leaves vary in size. Here are four types, but there are many more:

(1)       Ovate – rounded like an egg;

(2)       Lanceolate – tapering from a rounded base toward an apex;

(3)       Orbiculate – nearly circular;

(4)       Linear – parallel margins that elongate and taper to a point.

When recording your orchid’s characteristics take into consideration the plant’s habitat for its leaf structure corresponds to its environment. Species that live in sunny, dry climates have thick, leathery leaves and a waxy cuticle that covers the laminas. This helps them retain their water supply. Shade orchid species have thin leaves.

Most orchid leaves are perennial. They live for several years. Others, especially plicate leaved orchids, shed them annually and then develop new leaves from new pseudobulbs. The pseudobulb develops from that part of a stem that grows between two leaf nodes. In some species, it does not resemble a bulb, is only slightly swollen and looks rather like a normal stem with many leaves. Whether cane-like with many joints or spherical with one or few joints, all pseudobulbs are produced from a creeping stem called a rhizome (climbing or pendulous). The pseudobulbs live between one to five years, but are continually produced from the growing tip of the rhizome.

Some Orchid History

Like many other plants found in antiquity and medieval times, orchids were first used for medicinal purposes. Orchids are referred to in the early writings on plants in the works of both Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.E.) a Greek philosopher, often called the “Father of Botany.” The author of Enquiry into Plants, Padanius Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 AD) a Greek Physician born in Turkey, working in the Roman Empire was the author of De Materia Medica, which included references to the medicinal properties of orchids. Dioscorides remained the authority on the subject for sixteen centuries. In 2007, Harvard University released their findings on the study of ancient pollen found on what is a now extinct worker bee that indicates orchids existed more than 20 million years ago.

The upshot of the Age of Discovery was the emergence of a network of global trade, a trade that included botany. Just as Tulips created a financial mania in Holland in 1636, Orchids were destined to create a similar financial mania. In 1698, the first tropical orchid was cultivated in Holland. It was the Brassavola nodosa and was imported from Curacao. Not only did exploration afford more and more access to never before seen plants and commodities, but it also allowed for the unveiling of orchids — soon to be called the largest family of flowering plants overtaking the Asteraceae family.

Brassavola nodosa



Brassavola nodosa [L.] Lindley 1831

Illustration by Sarah Ann Drake (1803–1857) an English botanical illustrator. [3]


Medicinal Uses of Orchids

In Europe, according to the Greek mythology, Satyrs were consuming large quantities of orchids, as an aphrodisiac. Towards the 1st century, Dioscorides suggested the use of plants for medicinal purposes according to their resemblance to parts of the human body “Doctrine of Signatures”. In East Asia, orchids were used for other medicinal purposes for thousands of years for fever, pain relief, fertility, and as an as anti-inflammatory. In China, there are drugs known as Shi-Hu (based on Dendrobium spp.), Tian-Ma (based on Gastrodium spp.) and Bai-Ji (based on Bletilla spp.) that are still produced today. In America, Africa, Australia and India orchids were also used for various medicinal purposes.

Since proper testing was not performed on the medicinal qualities of orchids, no accurate results were confirmed or correctly documented. Today, it seems that pharmaceutical laboratories are willing to investigate old theories regarding the health benefits of orchids. The results, although still growing, show that benefits range from pain relief to improved memory.

Family Orchidaceae ~ STRUCTURE

The orchid family is old, widespread, and diverse.   The first orchid fossil puts showy blooms at some 80 million years old.   Renowned taxonomists have worked on the Orchidaceae Family since before 1825.   The Orchid Family, ORCHIDACEAE, is considered the largest flowering plant family (over 25,000 species) in the world, and a growing number of hybrids reaching at least 110,000.   Orchid discovery, classification, and reclassification are continually active.   Since many of the orchid tribes are so large, we can expect future alterations and reclassifications by individual botanists, naturalists and researchers who continue to do fieldwork.


Orchids are considered perennial herbs with rhizomes, tubers or corms. Their stems are sometimes swollen at the base (pseudobulbs). Leaves are simple, alternate or rarely opposite, entire. The inflorescence forms a spike, raceme or panicle. The structure of orchid flowers is unique among floral plants. The orchid flower is typically has an outer whorl of three sepals, an inner whorl of three petals, and a single large column (the gynostemium, composed of the male stamens attached to the female pistil) in the center. The sepals are the protective cover of the flower bud. When the flower opens, the sepals may become enlarged and colored. In most species, the sepals are equal sized and look like petals. In some species, however, the top, or “dorsal” sepal becomes very large and showy, the two lower “lateral” sepals are sometimes fused into one structure, and in other species all three sepals are fused forming a bell-shaped structure around the flower. In some species, the display of the sepals completely overwhelms the actual flower.


The two lateral petals flank the greatly enlarged flamboyant bottom petal (lip or labellum), which is usually highly modified to attract and, in some cases, trap potential pollinators. The lip may be differently colored or marked, ruffled or pouch shaped, decorated with crests, tails, horns, fans, warts, hairs, teeth, or other decorations attractive to their selected pollinator.


The orchid’s reproductive organs are combined into a single column (a gynostemium) unlike the usually separate male stamen/anther and female pistil/stigma configurations of other flowers. This is the primary identification feature of an orchid. At the top of the column is the male anther, which contains packets of pollen called pollinia. Below the anther is the stigma, a shallow, usually sticky cavity in which the pollen is placed for fertilization. There is a small growth, called the rostellum, which acts as a protective barrier to prevent self-pollination. Some species produce separate male and female flowers to prevent self-pollination.


The overall flower shape is characteristically bilaterally symmetrical (the left and right halves of the blossom are mirror images), a necessity for reliable pollination by bees.  In the bud stage, the lip is the uppermost petal. In most (but not all) orchids, as the flower opens, the flower twists 180° around its flower stalk to position the lip on the bottom. This unique process is called resupination. Some orchid flowers remain “upside down” or non- resupinate while other flowers will rotate in a complete 360° circle ending back in the original upside position!


               Many tropical species of orchid will rely on a single species of euglossine bee to pollinate them, and the bee will visit only that particular species of orchid. Some orchid species have established pollinator relationships with flies, gnats, moths, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even bats![4]

Orchids by Design grow according to two structures

  • Monopodial: (Single Footed) orchid plants grow continuously taller – upwards, and some reach many feet in height under ideal A monopodial orchid has neither pseudobulbs nor rhizomes. It grows continually upward from the top of the plant. It produces roots and flowers at intervals from the vertical stem. A monopodial orchid has alternate leaves the entire length of the stem.
  • Sympodial: (Many Footed) For sympodial think of sideways growth From a connecting stem (rhizome), which grows horizontally, it puts up successive growths in which each one is a duplicate of the one before. The upright growths are called pseudobulbs, each a repetition of the one before and growing parallel to each other. The leaves grow alternately out of the pseudobulb.


Four Types of Orchids


The Orchidaceae Family originated as terrestrial forest under- story herbs approximately 100 million years ago. The transition to an epiphytic canopy habitat required adaptations in plant morphology. Orchids have specialized adaptations in the roots, stems, leaves, and seed. There are four types of orchids:

                                    (1) EPIPHYTIC ORCHIDS: The word, epiphyte, is derived from two Greek terms, epi- and phyte, literally meaning, “that which is found above or on a plant.” the term refers to plants that perch on other plants. Epiphytic orchids have no vascular connection to the host tree. The host only supplies support in a habitat that has more sunlight than the forest floor. Orchids absorb required nutriments from the surface of the host and rainwater. Roots of epiphytic orchids are exposed to the light, and the cells in the roots contain functioning chloroplasts. Epiphytic orchids often have enlarged portions of the stem called pseudobulbs, which are used for water and carbohydrate storage. The pseudobulb may form in one internode, or it can consist of several internodes. The pseudobulbs swell or shrink as moisture is stored or withdrawn. This adaptation allows orchids to flourish in areas where the plants experience months without rainfall. The pseudobulbs and leaves have a thick cuticle to reduce moisture loss. The leaves of a plant are the primary photosynthetic organs that are sometimes modified for water storage. Some orchids have thick succulent leaves and no pseudobulbs.

                                    (2) SAPROPHYTIC ORCHIDS: In the amazing world of the botany, the saprophytic orchids are different from others because they do not carry chlorophyll. Therefore, they need to find food from the organic matters on the forest floor and through the help of the mycorrhizal fungi instead of photosynthesis. The saprophytic orchids will allow mycorrhizal fungi to live inside the tubers or the roots. Those fungi will emit the enzyme to digest the organic matters and will, in turn, bring about the nutrition needed for the orchids. Water and sugar from the orchids would be the elements given to the fungi in return. This is an example of how they survive by helping each other, amazingly. The majority of orchids pass through a saprophytic seedling stage, which may last for months, especially in terrestrial species. Thus, the evolution of a completely saprophytic life cycle in different groups of orchids is not surprising.

                                    (3) LITHOPHYTIC ORCHIDS: Lithophytic orchids grow with their roots exploring the crack and crevices of suitable rocky surfaces, so that even when the rock is in a sunny place, the roots are protected from excessive drying out. They feed off moss, gaining nutrients in rainwater, litter, and their dead tissue. Beyond the evergreen forests, various species of orchids have tried to cope with their environmental defects such as lack of organic matters. It is also noted that these Lithophytic orchids have demonstrated the developments from the terrestrial orchids into epiphytic orchids in the end. Some epiphytic orchids have adapted to growing on rocks because nearby forests may not offer enough light Some orchid species can be found growing in nature in both modes.

                                    (4) TERRESTRIAL ORCHIDS: Terrestrial orchids grow in the ground. Orchid seeds are adapted for wind disbursal. The dust-like seed consists of a tiny embryo and a net-like testa. The seed lacks endosperm, the 3N tissues that typically feed a developing embryo. In orchids when germination occurs, mycorrhizal fungi penetrate the testa and feed the embryo. This symbiotic relationship occurs in the seed germination of terrestrial orchid species as well. Most of the native orchids of the United States and all the natives of Europe are terrestrials growing wild in subtropical and tropical areas. Among the orchid family, there are more than 200 species that flourish in the soil. Considered woodland plants, terrestrial orchids share some characteristics with their greenhouse counterparts. These plants come in many shapes and size, produce blossoms in a rainbow of colors, and are famous for filling the night air with pleasant aromas. Unlike their tropical cousins, however, these woodland flowers do not produce aerial roots or stems that climb trees and bushes. They prefer to keep their roots firmly planted in the earth. Terrestrial orchids don’t need, nor can they handle a lot of fertilizer, either. Usually, all that’s needed to feed these flowers is leafy compost at planting and later as the plants mature. One difference between terrestrial orchids and other orchids is their ability to tolerate cold temperatures. Many of these species survive well in freezing temperatures, and some require sub-freezing conditions to bloom. Like tulips and other bulb plants, these orchids go dormant through the cold weather months and grow and bloom again when spring arrives. [5]


 Know Your Orchid Parts –  Paphiopedilum Flower Diagram


Laeliocattleya x Sophrolaeliocattleya Flower Diagram

Bijoux Dore Flower


Photograph Your Subject

Phaius Photo Study


Dissect Your Orchid

When you have identified the morphological and anatomical aspects of your plant through observation, photography, and hopefully dissection, please make sure that you name the various parts you have observed. The illustration below is one example of an orchid dissection with all the parts identified.

Orchids also have their male and female parts fused together in what is called a column, so it is difficult to separate the stamen from the carpels. Pollinia are little packets of pollen. Bees or other insects will get this little pollen package stuck to their bodies, and hopefully will drop the pollen package on another orchid of the same species. The orchid, which receives the pollinia, will thus get a whole lot of pollen all at once, rather than a few grains here and there.


Examples of Recording Orchid Parts




 Ionopsis Orchid Ink

Epiphytic Orchid – Ionopsis atricularioides (Sw.) Lindl. 1826

                                     Ink Illustration by Susan Hubbard w/Permission




Epiphytic Hybrid Orchid Bijou Dore

Epiphytic Hybrid Orchid Lealiocattleya x Sophrolaeliocattleya

Ink Illustration by O.M.Braida©2004




 Bijou Dore KeyElementWatercolor


What Do We Draw First?

There are four main types of drawings:

(1) Habit “sketches” used to illustrate an entire subject.  These can be illustrated with charcoal, graphite, loose  watercolor brush strokes, colored pencil.

(2) Drawings  that show the basic plan of sections, cross-sections, and tissue types, without showing the cells. Cell types are illustrated in a high power diagram.  Often times, these detailed drawings are executed with pen and ink.

(3) High power detailed drawings of cells within a section of a specimen (e.g. cells within the vascular bundle of a stem section).  Often times, these detailed drawings are illustrated with pen and ink.

(4) A combination of both basic and detailed elements of an orchid plant.  The entire plant portrait is often executed with fine pencil work,  with watercolor, with colored pencil, with oil, or even with mixed media.

Whichever type of drawing, or painting, you are doing, remember to include the information about all aspects of your subject. To capture your living specimen before it dies, it is best to proceed in the following manner:

a)     Overall Plant: Curve, Gesture, Posture, Habitat

b)    Bud: Quantity, Number of visible parts, Arrangement, Direction, Attachment, Veins, Measurement, Color

c)     Bloom: Quantity, Number of parts (Bracts, Sepals, Petals, Column, Anther Cap, Lip), Arrangement, Direction, Attachment, Veins, Measurement, Color

d)    Leaf: Shape, Margin, Tip (Apex), Base, Vein Shape & Quantity, Posture, Arrangement, Attachment, Surface, Measurement, Color

e)     Stem, Branch, Stalk, Trunk: Arrangement, Attachment, Surface, Distance between nodes, Nodes, Measurement, Color

f)     Roots: Arrangement, Attachment, Measurement, Color


Tips for Recording Properly

a)     Begin to sketch your composition by using gesture sketches, followed by contour,

b)    Take as many macro photos of your plant as possible from various positions observing all directions completely around the plant.

c)     Begin all key element studies in pencil and carefully examine the significant features that will be included in the drawing.

d)    Begin your key elements studies with the bud. Then proceed to the flower, pedicels, leaves, pseudobulbs and sheaths (if applicable), and finally roots.

e)     Make any color notations by matching the color with color pencils, color guides, or pan tone color guides.

f)     Drawings must be large and clear so that features can be easily distinguished. If you need to enlarge the subject to see the information more clearly, do so with a ruler and provide the magnification info, i.e., 2x, 3x, etc.

g)     Be sure to write scientific names correctly. All scientific names must be written as follows: Genus (beginning with a capital letter) species (beginning with a common letter) both Genus and species are in italics: e.g. Ionopsis atricularioides

h)    To do an illustration with cross-sections and dissections on the same paper, be sure to plan the page layout first. Using pencil draw the approximate size of each drawing.

i)     Once you have decided the best way to capture your plant portrait begin to work either with your Perplexi® grid tool, or with your divider measuring tool. These tools will help you draw your plant in perspective if you plan to do a plant portrait versus a scientific illustration.



ANDROECIUMThe collective term for the male reproductive parts: the stamens.

ANTHER:  Section of the stamen where the pollen is produced.

ANTHER CAP:  This cap-like structure covers the pollinia.

APICAL:  A stem grows from the apex of the main stem, like Cattleya.

AXILLARY:  A stem grows from the leaf axil, as in Vanda.

BASEL:  A stem can be produced from the base of the tuber, like Cymbidium.

BLOOM:  The actual flowers once they are open.

BUD:  The flower before it is opened.

CALYX:  The collective term for the sepals.

CARPEL :  Female part of the flower consisting of stigma, style and ovary

COLUMN:  The tiny, rounded, column-like extension between the two largest petals. It is fused to form its column-like shape where it encases the male and female reproductive parts, otherwise referred to as the central reproductive organ of the orchid flower.

COROLLA:  The collective term for the petals.

FILAMENT:  Long thin stalk of the stamen.

GYNOECIUM/PISTIL:  The collective term for the female reproductive parts: the carpels.

INFLORESCENCE:  The flowering part of a plant.

KEIKI:  A small plant growing from a node on the flower stem.

LABELLUM:  The medial petal (labellum or lip) is always modified and enlarged. It is the upper medial petal; however, as the flower develops, the inferior ovary or the pedicel rotates 180 degrees, so that the labellum arrives at the lower part of the flower, thus becoming suitable to form a platform for pollinators.

LEAVES:  Located above the roots.

LIP:  The part of the flower that is almost completely divided from the rest of the flower, however, it is connected by the column. The lip is specialized to aid in pollination.

MEDIUM:  Material added to an orchid’s container, which can range from varieties such as soil to bark.

MONOCOTYLEDONS:  The orchid flower, like most flowers of monocots, has two whorls of sterile elements. The outer whorl has three sepals and the inner whorl has three petals. The sepals are usually very similar to the petals (and thus called tepals) but may also be completely distinct.

NODE:   A distinct joint or notch on the inflorescence from which a secondary flower stem can emerge from after the primary inflorescence has finished blooming.

OVARY:  The part of the carpel that encloses the ovules.

OVULES:  After fertilization they develop into seeds.

PEDICEL:  The stem of the flower.

PELORIC:  Orchid flowers with abnormal numbers of petals or lips. Peloria is a genetic trait, but its expression is environmentally influenced and may appear randomly

PERIANTH:  The collective term for the non-reproductive parts of a flower.

PETALS :   The segments forming the flower. Petals are layered before the Sepals.

POLLINIUM:  Pollinium, or plural pollinia, is a coherent mass of pollen grains in a plant that are the product of only one anther, but are transferred, during pollination, as a single unit.

PSEUDOBULB:  The pseudobulb is a storage organ found in many epiphytic and terrestrial sympodial orchids. It is derived from a thickening of the part of a stem between leaf nodes and may be composed of just one internode or several.

RECEPTACLE:  The expanded part of the pedicel, which bears the flower parts.

RESUPINATION:   This characteristic occurs primitively in the family and is considered apomorphic, a derived characteristic all ORCHIDACEAE share.

ROOTS:  Located just below the leaves.

SEPALS:  The outer segments on an orchid flower. Similar to petals, sepals are the three smaller segments of the flower that create a triangular shape.

SEPALS:  Leaf-like parts that surround the flower. They cover the bud before it opens.

SPIKE/STEM:   A flower stalk.

STAKE :  A wooden stick to support the orchid spike.

STAMEN:   Male portion of flower consisting of filament and anther.

STIGMA:  The part that receives the pollen for pollination to take place.

STIGMATIC SURFACE:   Located on the underside of the column, below the pollinia. It receives the pollen.

STYLE:  Connects the stigma to the ovary.

SYNSEPAL:  In Paphiopedilum (Venus slippers), the lower two sepals are fused while the lip forms of a slipper.

THROAT:   The inner portion of a tubular orchid lip, often quite colorful.

ZYGOMORPHIC:  Orchid flowers are primitively zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical).





Book References 

l   Berendsohn, W.G., A Taxonomic Information Model for Botanical Databases: The IOPI Model.

l   Cribb, Phillip, Orchid Research Newsletter, No. 40, 2002.

l   Darwin, Charles, M.A., F.R.S., The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Sixth London Edition, with all additions and corrections, is considered the definitive edition. 1859.

l   Cribb, Phillip & Tibbs, Michael, A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day,

Blacker Publishing/Royal Botanic Garden (Kew) and Thames & Hudson, 2004

l   Kramer, Jack, A Passion for Orchids. Prestel-Verlag Publishers, Germany, 2002.

l   Lack, H. Walter, Garden Eden – Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration. Taschen Publishers, Germany, 2001.

l   Mabberly, David, Ferdinand Bauer – The Nature of Discovery. Merrell Holberton Publishers, London, 1999.

l   Nicolaides, Kimon, The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1975.

l   Stern, William T., Botanical Latin, Fourth Edition. Timber Press, Oregon, 2000.

l   Stewart, Joyce and Stearn, William T., The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer. Timber Press, Oregon, 1993.

l   Wiersema, John H. and León, Blanca. World Economic Plants, A Standard Reference, 1999.

Note: All images in this book are either copyright of the author, or used with permission by contributing artists.

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