Orchid Wise

Species & Primary Hybrid Orchids

The first ancestors of our modern orchids, started life growing wild, in a jungle, field, gully or some other nature area.  These original ancestors are called Species Orchids.

What is a Cymbidium Species Orchid?

You will hear the names lowianum, tracyanum, devonianum, pumilum (now reclassified as floribundum), tigrinum, ensifolium and dozens of other species names throughout your orchid journey.  There are lots more, and more are still being discovered or re-classified.  Usually, a particular species is found growing in isolation, away from other species  Cymbidium orchids.  Sometimes, the same species orchid is found growing wild in several areas, large distances apart, even in different countries.  Many of them set seed, and produce new plants from those seeds.  The resultant plants from these seeds can vary a little from their parents, but because they share all the same genes, are most often very similar to their parents.

Natural breeding within a species has been occurring forever, so over a long time, different forms of the same species evolved.  Collectors in early days often took huge numbers of plants from the wild, and due to the different growing conditions provided, not all survived.

We now know that there are many forms of a particular species.  The same species Cymbidium collected from one area is often quite different to one collected from a separate or more remote area.  The different forms of the same species are given what is known as a varietal name, to distinguish them from those from another area.

They can have different features, for example: colour, plant size, growth habit etc.  

Early on, Botanists tried to classify these wild collected plants, and were often incorrect and so it often took time for this to be corrected, and we are still continually learning about these plants and re-classifying them.

Cym. tracyanum is a species Cymbidium

Some consider some species orchids to be rare, but they are out there.  It is more likely they are very tightly held in a collection and not readily available.  Commercial growers often hold species plants for specific breeding programs and will not sell them. 

Cym. hookerianum is a species Cymbidium

In the early twentieth century, growers started hybridising cymbidiums.  

In those days, they did not have the knowledge to grow the seed produced, in sterile containers like we do today.  Seed pods from cymbidium orchids can contain hundreds of thousands of very small seeds.  Most seed when sown, did not germinate.  Only a few plants grew, when they were sown in the pots with other mature cymbidiums.  

We now know this seed required a particular fungus present on mature plants in order to germinate and grow.

Should a species orchid be mated to the same species orchid, any resultant plants are still species orchids.  For example, lowianum ‘concolour’ x lowianum ‘concolour’ still produces lowianum.  This type of mating is called a selfing.

Similarly a mating of two different forms of the same species cymbidium, for example floribundum ‘Album’ x floribundum ‘Pale Face’ will still produce all species floribundum plants.  In both matings described above, all the new plants will be different to their parent plants, and if given a varietal name, it cannot be the same as either of their parents.  They will though, most likely, be very similar to their parents.  This type of mating is called a sibling cross.

What is a Primary Hybrid?

The resultant plants produced from hybrids between two species orchids (for example hookerianum x tracyanum), are no longer species orchids.  The mating of two species orchids is often referred to as a Primary Hybrid.  

These hybrids take on the characteristics of both parent plants, but not necessarily in equal proportions.  If you are intending to try and improve your orchid collection, it is important to understand the difference between a species Cymbidium and a hybrid, and the properties of the various species Cymbidiums.

Cym. Rosefieldense is a Primary Hybrid of Cym. hookerianum x Cym. tracyanum. This is a flowering Rosefieldense in my collection from 2022.

As stated earlier, there are many species Cymbidiums, but only a small number are used in most modern commercial and show bench breeding.  Different species bring different, and useful, properties into orchid growing.  It is worth studying the growing conditions and properties of these species, to help develop the collection that suits your wants.

Personally I have a great love for species and primary hybrid orchids, and they comprise the bulk of my collection.  I will be adding more information on species and primary hybrids when the opportunity arises, as well as photographs from my own collection, including the below photo of one of my favourites – Cym. Forster Alcock which is a primary hybrid of Cymbidium tracyanum × Cymbidium elegans, first registered in 1909.

Cym. Forster Alcock

A great reference website compiled by Stephen Early, based in Melbourne, Australia, contains a list of all Species and Primary Hybrid Cymbidiums that I refer to all the time, especially when considering what to cross next – www.cymspecies.com

Joshua White from the Cymbidium Orchid Society of Victoria has also compiled some very informative species Cymbidium information with Noe Smith.  These articles are always being expanded on so check back often to see the updates.  It is a site full of great information which is well worth a read and one I constantly visit – www.cosv.com.au/growing-species

Species Cymbidium orchids worth researching are the following:

Important – insigne, lowianum, tracyanum, floribundum (previously known as pumilum), ensifolium, devonianum

Less well known but often used in breeding – hookerianum, eryththraem, parishii, sanderae, eburneum, canaliculatum, sinense

Less often used in breeding – suave, madidum, elegans, mastersii, tigrinum, goeringii, dayanum

The remaining two thirds are not used much in breeding.  Some influential breeders suggest  they have little to offer to serious orchid growing, but others might suggest otherwise!

Originally written and compiled by Graham Morris from the Cymbidium Orchid Club of South Australia
Edited and updated for use on this site.

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