What is Orchis?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2019
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Orchis is a genus of plants that belongs to the Orchidaceae family. They are a variety of orchids that mostly grow in temperate regions such as North Africa, Eurasia, and some parts of North America. Its name comes from orkhis, a Greek word meaning testicles, which pertain to the shape of its tubers.

These terrestrial plants have straight, leafy stems with clusters of small flowers in colors of red, yellow, and purple. Some species manifest mixed shades such as yellow-orange and violet with dark blue petals. The formation of its clumps of blooms varies from cylindrical to spike-like forms that measure 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 cm). As perennial plants, one can only expect to see their flowers during the spring and summer.

One of its species, the Orchis simian, or monkey orchid, is different from the rest because of how the plant starts flowering. Unlike the pattern of most other Orchis species, the monkey orchid’s bulbs sprout from the top of the stem first and make their way down, instead of the normal base-to-tip direction. The center of the flower has three to four lobes, and its spotted petals form a long pointed hood. Monkey orchids have a mild vanilla scent that is most perceptible during the months of May and June.


Orchis plants are also known for having tubers instead of pseudobulbs—the part of an orchid where water and food are stored. This means its growth habit is under the sympodial category, where its tuberous roots function as the main reservoir of food and nutrients for the plant’s system. These tuber-bearing terrestrial orchids also grow in a lateral direction, which explains the plant’s maximum height of only 8 to 20 inches (20 to 50 cm). Monopodial-growing orchids, on the other hand, have pseudobulbs and the ability to grow taller. They can be distinguished by the presence of a thickened stem at their base.

As terrestrial orchids, these types of plants can successfully propagate in all kinds of environments. Orchis plants have been seen growing in the extreme conditions of semi-arid deserts in northern and western Africa, as well as swampy forests in Europe. Such survival is possible because of the natural ability of its tubers to lie just below the ground or deep under the soil, wherever water is most accessible. New growth of an Orchis plant is seen in a singular stem, with the tip capped with a cluster of small flowers.



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