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Phalaenopsis amabilis (moth orchid)

The moth orchid was one of the first orchids to be described from the Far East and its hybrids are now popular as houseplants.

Detail of an illustration of moth orchid

Detail of an illustration of Phalaenopsis amabilis

Species information

Scientific name: 

Phalaenopsis amabilis (L.) Blume

Common name: 

moth orchid, moon orchid

Conservation status: 

Species as a whole has not been evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria, but P. amabilis subsp. rosenstromii is Endangered in Queensland. Listed in Appendix II of CITES.

Habitat: 

Epiphytic on tree trunks, branches and rocks in lowland tropical rain forest.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Asparagales
Family: 
Orchidaceae
Genus: Phalaenopsis

About this species

Orchids (Orchidaceae) are the largest family of flowering plants, and there are over 50 species of Phalaenopsis alone. The genus name is derived from the Greek phalaino (moth), and opsis (appearance), referring to the moth-like flowers of some species.

Synonym: 

Epidendrum amabile L., Cymbidium amabile (L.) Roxb., Synadena amabilis (L.) Raf., Phalaenopsis gloriosa Rchb.f., Phalaenopsis grandiflora Lindl.

Genus: 
Phalaenopsis

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Phalaenopsis amabilis can be found from the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea into Australia (Queensland).

A hand-coloured lithograph by W.H. Fitch as Phalaenopsis grandiflora taken from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1860).

Description

There are usually 3–5 broad dark green leaves, which are thick and leathery, measuring up to 50 cm long and 10 cm wide, and set in opposite rows. Thick fleshy roots arise from the basal (lower) part of the often pendulous stem. Flowering stems grow from the base of the leaves and are branched, up to 1 m long, with many white flowers, each lasting several weeks or until pollinated. The dorsal sepal is elliptic and blunt, whereas lateral sepals are ovate and pointed. Petals are rounded, narrow at the base, and up to 4.5 cm long. The lip has three lobes. The side lobes are rounded like the petals and the basal lobe is cross-shaped with two long whip-like tails or tendrils curling up from the tip.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Name changes

During the 250 years or more that this orchid has been in cultivation, it has undergone several name changes and was not called Phalaenopsis amabilis until the 19th century.

It was originally described (as Angraecum albus majus) from the island of Amboina in Indonesia by the German-Dutch botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius in 1750. A herbarium specimen, collected in Java by the Swedish explorer Pehr Osbeck in 1752, was renamed Epidendrum amabile by Linnaeus in 1753, and the species was finally transferred to the new genus Phalaenopsis by the botanist Carl Ludwig Blume in 1825.

Malayan Moth Orchid and an American Climber, painting by Marianne North

Threats and conservation

Although Phalaenopsis amabilis has yet to be evaluated according to recent IUCN Red List criteria, one of its subspecies, P. amabilis subsp. rosenstromii is classified Endangered in Queensland and is listed as such by the Queensland Government in the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006. This subspecies occurs in several National Parks within the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site but is potentially threatened by illegal collecting.

All orchids are listed on Appendix I or II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which makes it an offence to trade this species between countries without a permit.

Uses

Phalaenopsis amabilis is cultivated as an ornamental and has been used by breeders to produce many hybrids and cultivars. It is officially recognised as one the national flowers of Indonesia.

This species at Kew

A moth orchid can be seen in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Pressed and dried, and alcohol-preserved specimens of Phalaenopsis amabilis are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these, including images, can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens

Phalaenopsis amabilis painting by John Day

The botanical artist Marianne North depicted Phalaenopsis amabilis in her painting Malayan Moth Orchid and an American Climber (see image, above), which can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery.

John Day’s orchid paintings

John Day (1824-1888) was an English orchid grower who also painted hundreds of exquisite watercolours of the newly discovered orchids that were introduced to Victorian society. These watercolours were presented to Kew after his death and are now in the Kew archives.

A selection of paintings, including one of Phalaenopsis amabilis, was published in A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888.

References and credits

Bechtel, H., Cribb, P. & Launert, E. (1992). The Manual of Cultivated Orchid Species. 3rd edition. Blandford Press, Poole.

Briggs, J. D. & Leigh, J. H. (1996). Rare or Threatened Australian Plants. 4th edition. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Brummitt, R. K. & Powell, C. E. (1996). Authors of Plant Names. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Christenson, E. A. (2001). Phalaenopsis: a Monograph. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Radcliffe-Smith, A. (1998). Three-language List of Botanical Name Components. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). Phalaenopsis amabilis. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 22 August 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Andre Schuiteman and Steve Davis
Copyediting: Malin Rivers

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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