A natural Frankestein: the orchid hybrid, Epidendrum x obrienianum

Figure 1:Flower of E. obrienianum with yellow crest on the lip

Figure 1:Flower of E. obrienianum with yellow crest on the lip

Humankind has always dreamed of chimeras, the Frankenstein´s monster or flying pigs. All this can actually happen in the plant world!! (although they cannot still fly). Many orchid growers have produced astonishing plants that can fascinate the human eye and make you feel as if you were in paradise. Epidendrum x obrienianum is one of these creatures with feature from multiple origins that can captivate you with its beauty and intriguing nature.

Classification of the species

Epidendrum x obrienianum or as it is commonly known: O’brien’s Star Orchid is a scrambling plant that belongs to the Orchid family. One of the largest plant families with approximately 25,000 species. The Orchidaceae family is easily recognisable for its characteristc flowers with a lip, and modified petals that insects usually use for landing to pollenate the flower. In the orchid family the genus Epidendrum is the second largest genus with more than 1.500 species (Bulbophyllum has about 2000 spp). Epidendrum is a genus native to America with a wide range of shapes and different growth habits (epiphytic, terrestrial or lithophytic).

Hybrid origin

Epidendrum x obrienianum is a hybrid species of E. jamiesonis (the female) and E. radicans (the male), the first parent is recorded to live in Ecuador[1] and the second parent is widespread in Central America[2] (see fig. 2). The distribution of both parental species does not join in any area. Consequently this species is not a natural hybrid, on the contrary it was produced in a botanical garden around 116 years ago [3].


Figure 2: Comparison of the parental species and the hybrid species. 1  is E. radicans. 2 is E. obrienianum. 3 is E.jamiesonis (=E. evectum).

Figure 2: Comparison of the parental species and the hybrid species. 1 is E. radicans. 2 is E. obrienianum. 3 is E.jamiesonis (=E. evectum)[5].

The O’brien’s Star Orchid is one of the crucifix orchids, which produce a big quantity of flowers that each resemble a cross. The flowers are about 4.5 cm in diameter, of a uniform bright carmine with the centre (calli) of the lip bright yellow (this was the original hybrid, nowadays there are huge diversity of colours); sepals and petals are oblong-lanceolate (see fig 3 & 4), longer than in E. jamiesonis, less narrowed than both parents (see fig. 2). The front lobe is bipartite, consisting of two erect large teeth with two smaller ones behind them and a rounded kneel in the centre of the lip. The stems emit white cord-like branching roots, 30-60 cm long, like E. radicans (see fig 5 & 6). The fruit is a capsule of 5 to 7 cm in diameter full of tiny seeds, that are dispersed by the wind (see figure 7 & 8). It is interesting that the vegetative parts are more similar to the pollen parent, with the roots coming up from the stems (which does not happen in the seed parent), whereas the flower colours resemble to the seed parent, Red with a bright yellow lip (see fig. 1, 3 & 4) . Although the column of the flower is almost as straight as it is in the pollen parent[4] [5]  (in the seed parent the column is curved. See fig. 2) .

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The nomenclature of this hybrid has been questioned by The Royal Horticulture Society, wondering if this name should include the offspring of a backcross of E. x obrienianum with one of its parents. The conclusion of this discussion was that a hybrid name should cover all the offspring of the two pertinent parents and any backcross of the hybrid its parental species[6] . All the backcrossing and orchid breeding that has been done with this species have as a result the great variety of colours that the flowers of this Epidendrum show.


O’brien’s Star Orchid has been introduced and it is now naturalised in Hawaii, where it reproduces asexually. And it may have also been naturalised in Florida, where it is not clear if it is this species or E. radicans [4] [7].

Ornamental use

O’brien’s Star Orchid or as it is also called Butterfly orchid, Baby orchid, Poor Man’s Orchid or Scarlet orchid is utilised in horticulture due to the long-lasting flowers, which stay all year around in the plant and the great variety of flower colours produced through many years of breeding that goes from the red to the pink and purple[8]. Consequently it is very handy for cut-flower arrangements. But you can also cultivate this plant in your home or glasshouse, if you had a bright place, but without direct sunlight with even moisture, well-drained soil and regular wet. You will have flowers all year round!!!


Epidendrum x obrienianum is a hybrid orchid which can be differentiated from its parent by the presence of roots in the shoots as in E. radicans and narrower petals and sepals than both parents and longer teeth of the lips like E. jamiesonis. The species is broadly cultivated as an ornamental plant either indoor or outdoor since it has flowers all year round and is relatively easy to cultivate.


[1]- Lojtnant, B. (1977). Notes on the genus Epidendrum (Orchidaceae) in Ecuador. Bot. Notiser 130 (3), 321-328.

[2]- Tropicos, botanical information system at the Missouri Botanical Garden Visited on 8th of January of 2014

[3]-Scott, W. H. (1888). Epidendrum obrienianum x, n. hyb. The Gardener’s Chronicle. A Weekly Ilustrated Journal of Horticulture and Allies   3: 770.

[4]- The Royal Horticulture Society. (2006). International register of orchid hybrids (sander’s list). Orchid review 114 :1271.

[5]- Veith, J. & Sons. (1887). A manual of orchidaceous plants cultivated under glass in Great Britain. Vol. 2. Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh (Ed.) Viriginia (U.S.A.)

[6]- Shaw, J. M. H. (2007). Proposals to amend the Code (H9–H11). Hanburyana 2: 15–21.

[7]-Kores, P. Pollination mechanisms as a limiting factor.

[8]- Pienaar, K. (2000). The South African what Flower is that? Struik (Eds.). South Africa.

About Ernesto Sanz

For many years I have been really interested in plant sciences, specially taxonomy and anatomy. I specially love the flora of the Mediterranean basin and the exuberant vegetation of tropical areas.
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