Phalaenopsis spp.

moth orchid


Phalaenopsis spp.

Blume 1825

pronounced: fay-lay-NOP-siss species

(Orchidaceae — the orchid family)


common name: moth orchid

native 4The derivation of the generic is a problem. Several botanical dictionaries say, ‘from the Greek word for moth’, and one dictionary I have consulted even quotes the Greek word as phalaina. However, the ancient Greek word φαλαινα (phalaina) is an alternative spelling for φαλλαινα, which means a whale, or a monster, and φαλαινιος (phalainios) was used as a nickname for a large person (resembling a whale). The ancient Greeks used two different words for a moth: ψυχη (psyché), breath, spirit, life, soul, departed spirit, ghost, etc., was also used for a moth, and σης, σητος (sés, sétos) was a clothes moth. Modern Greek uses σκωρος (skóros) for a clothes moth, and νυχτοπεταλουδα (nychtopetaloyda), literally ‘night butterfly’, for a moth.

Wherever the name comes from, Phalaenopsis is a genus of very beautiful orchids. There are about 60 species of them, primarily evergreen epiphytic orchids. They grow on the trunks of other plants, and are found throughout the tropical rainforests of Asia, and south to New Guinea and northern Australia. Their spectacular flowers appear at almost any time of the year, and do look like fluttering butterflies. They are very popular with florists, and are often used at weddings, particularly as buttonholes.

Moth orchids form a cluster of plain green or spotted fleshy broad strap-like leaves that grow from the rootstock. The flowers grow on arching stems that rise above the foliage, and carry anything up to about 20 flowers that are often pendant. They have two large wing-like horizontal petals, 3 sepals that are smaller and narrower, and a conspicuous lip that is often lobed. The wings are the origin of the common name, although in many of the fancier hybrids the sepals are often nearly as large as the petals, resulting in a rather round flower. The colour range of the species and the dozens of hybrids of this genus is enormous, especially in pink and gold shades.

They require warm, humid and damp conditions, or a well-ventilated greenhouse, with filtered light and well-nigh constant moisture, in a rich but well-drained compost. The hybrid photographed is growing in a basket hanging from the branch of a tree in a well-shaded section of Bev McLaughlin’s garden in Picnic Bay. Moth orchids will also do quite well as house plants, where they require windowsill light and constant moisture.
Each year a Phalaenopsis will grow one or two new leaves. Once that growth phase is over, a bloom spike will emerge from the stem beneath the second or third leaf from the top. Sometimes a plant that is in a constantly warm house will need to be taken outside to experience lower temperatures (15 – 20º) in order to set a bloom spike. Once the plant has finished blooming, it will focus on growing new roots and leaves in preparation for new flower spikes, and this is the time for repotting.

Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010, 2014
Page last updated 9th March 2019