Prosthechea cochleata: An Upside-Down, Dangly and Charming Orchid ✾

Queensland Orchid International Prosthechea cochleata

Apart from becoming recognized as a desirable species of flowering plant with the honour of being the first tropical epiphytic orchid to bloom at Kew Gardens, England in 1787, there is something peculiarly exotic about Prosthechea cochleata, for the orchid flower seems to resemble an animal more than it does a blossom. Its unusual appearance has definitely spurred imagination and spawned several descriptive common names well circulated amongst interested laypersons and garden enthusiasts. Meanwhile, some botanical experts in the scientific community have continued to reclassify it under different genera.

There are at least four common names and more than a dozen botanical names:

Synonyms of Prosthechea cochleata

Common Names

  1. The Octopus Orchid
  2. The Clamshell Orchid
  3. The Cockleshell Orchid
  4. The Black Orchid

Botanical Names

  1. Anacheilium cochleatum (L.) Hoffmanns 1842
  2. Aulizeum cochleatum [L.] Lindley 1892
  3. Encyclia cochleata [L.] Lemee 1955
  4. Encyclia lancifolia (Pav. ex Lindl.) Dressler & G E Pollard 1971
  5. Epidendrum cochleatum L. 1763
  6. Epidendrum cochleatum var. costaricense Schltr. 1923
  7. Epidendrum cochleatum var. grandiflorum Mutel 1838
  8. Epidendrum cochleatum var. pallidum Lindl.
  9. Epidendrum lancifolium Pav. ex Lindl. 1853
  10. Hormidium cochleatum [L.] Breiger 1977
  11. Phaedrosanthus cochleatus O Ktze. 1904
  12. Prosthechea cochleata (L.) W E Higgins 1997
  13. Prosthechea cochleata var. grandiflora (Mutel) Christenson
  14. Prosthechea cochleata var. triandra (Ames) Hágsater

As the following excerpt demonstrates, this orchid is an unusual but desirable, commonly cultivated plant whose geographical origin has a wide distribution:

Prosthechea cochleata, formerly known as Encyclia cochleata, Anacheilium cochleatum, and Epidendrum cochleatum and commonly referred to as the Cockleshell Orchid or Clamshell Orchid, is an epiphytic, sympodial New World orchid native to Central America, the West Indies, Colombia, Venezuela, and southern Florida.[1]

Each oblong discoid pseudobulb bears one or two linear nonsucculent leaves. The flowers are unusual in that though the labellum is usually below the column in the orchids, in the members of Prosthechea the labellum forms a “hood” over the column. This makes the flower effectively upside down, or non-resupinate. Whereas the species usually has one anther, Prosthechea cochleata var. triandra is an endangered variety that has three anthers and is autogamous, allowing its existence in Florida where no appropriate pollinators appear to be present.[2]

P. cochleata is common in cultivation, and is valued for its uniquely shaped and long-lasting flowers on continually growing racemes. Several hybrids have been produced with this species, including the popular Prosthechea Green Hornet.[3] (still often listed as Encyclia Green Hornet)

Prosthechea cochleata is the national flower of Belize, where it is known as the Black Orchid.[4]


Variations in the species aside, natural hybrids have been identified:

All in all, Prosthechea cochleata is a medium-sized epiphytic orchid reputed to be relatively easy to grow in both warm and intermediate climates, probably due to the fact that it originates from a wide range of habitats, growing in both evergreen and deciduous forests, from sea level to 2km elevation. Under cultivated condition, it thrives on even watering and regular feeding, and rewards growers with a long flowering period of five to nine months after reaching maturity.

Prosthechea cochleata

Original photo sourced from the French website at
English Translation of the first half of the French article is provided here as follows:

I was reported by Charles Plumier from 1703 in his book “Helleborine cochleata flore”, and Linné then described me under the name Epidendrum cochleatum in 1763.

I was classified in 1955 in the genus Encyclia by Father Albert Lennée, then in 1997 in Prosthechea by William Higgins.

Be that as it may, I was one of the first orchids grown in the Royal Gardens at Kew.

I am a South American and live in Mexico, Colombia, the Caribbean, Florida and Venezuela.

I am very appreciated for the duration of my flowering and the uniqueness of my inverted flowers.

Some describe my octopus-shaped flower and the shell-shaped lip, which have earned me the nickname “shell orchid”.

My flowers also evoke the shape of an octopus, my sepals and petals in the shape of small twisted ribbons hang under a dark purple, almost black rounded lip that gives me an unusual charm.

Each of you is free to give a different interpretation [of what I resemble]: cockle, octopus, squid. I accept everything! ! !

  • Roy Lee A lot of these are up side down.RHS reckon this is a Nat’ Hyb’ also, very strange/ 9 January 2014 at 23:17 · Unlike · 1
  • K-w SoundEagle Taking an evolutionary perspective, the flowers may also be pollinated by nocturnal animals and/or insects. given the white colour on the conspicuous and long petals and sepals, as well as on parts of the labellum and column. 10 January 2014 at 09:39 · Like
  • Li Wen Possible natural hybrid between what two species? 10 January 2014 at 21:49 · Unlike · 1
  • K-w SoundEagle Hi Li Wen, who are you asking this question, SoundEagle or Roy? And how is this question relevant to this post at all? 10 January 2014 at 21:59 · Like
  • Li Wen Roy mentioned RHS reckons this is a natural hybrid… I’m wondering if anybody can speculate the two parents… 10 January 2014 at 21:59 · Unlike · 1
  • K-w SoundEagle Thank you for your clarification. It would certainly be illuminating to know about the parentage, and whether one or both plants are also as odd as the progeny, and which features are dominant or recessive across generations. 10 January 2014 at 22:08 · Like
  • Li Wen I am not aware of any other Encyclia/Prostechea/whatever-you- call-em-now which has such a unique shape like cochleata or similar to this.. 10 January 2014 at 22:11 · Unlike · 1
  • Li Wen I have another hypothesis regarding pollinators. The flower (except the lip) actually closely resembles the ylang-ylang flower (Cananga odorata), a fragrant non-orchid bush from the Magnolia family. I think fragrance is a key attraction here and it is likely that the pollinators are similar. Perhaps mimicry is the strategy of P. cochleata here, although both cochleata and ylang-ylang do come from different places of origin. 10 January 2014 at 22:15 · Unlike · 1
  • Roy Lee I have no idea Li Wen. No names parents offered. Kew list has it as a species. It stays there for me. 10 January 2014 at 22:18 · Unlike · 2
  • Li Wen Interestingly, I found this paper which studied the various fragrance components of several fragrant Encyclia/Prosthechea species..…/lanke…/article/view/7953 10 January 2014 at 22:26 · Unlike · 1 · Remove Preview
  • K-w SoundEagle Thank you, Li Wen, for the hypothesis, which is certainly plausible. However, mimicry is a possible explanation if and only if the Prosthechea cochleata mimicking the Cananga odorata (ylang-ylang) and the latter being mimicked by the former are both growing in the same environment. Otherwise, the functional and/or morphological similarities are due to convergent evolution, not mimicry.

    Moreover, if the ylang-ylang being mimicked relies on not just perfume but also colour and/or shape to attract pollinators, then my earlier postulation is also and still valid, especially since “The flower (except the lip) actually closely resembles the ylang-ylang flower (Cananga odorata), a fragrant non-orchid bush from the Magnolia family.” 12 January 2014 at 01:02 · Edited · Like

  • K-w SoundEagle For example, Prosthechea cochleata var. Alba is totally white with faint green.
  • K-w SoundEagle Other white ones include Prosthechea chacaoensis (which is mentioned in the article):
  • K-w SoundEagle As you probably already know, many flowers attracting nocturnal pollinators are white in colour and also fragrant. So, one of the key points to consider is whether the cochleata mimicking the ylang-ylang in colour and/or shape has been also mimicking it in fragrance. The answer is negative, since, according to the article, “The flowers of P. cochleata, reported to be an autogamic species, produced no volatiles.” Furthermore, if the ylang-ylang in question attracts its pollinators solely or mainly by its fragrance, then the hypothesis of mimicry is very shaky or untenable, meaning that the morphological resemblance is due to coincidence or convergent evolution. 11 January 2014 at 14:22 · Edited · Like
  • Li Wen Yes, I do. Not necessarily mimicry per se, but convergent evolution, which could perhaps attract the same pollinators (or related) as the ylang2. I think the ylang2 is pollinated by moths. 11 January 2014 at 09:17 · Unlike · 1
  • Convergent evolution describes the independent…
  • K-w SoundEagle Thank you, Li Wen. Yes, the article from Wikipedia gives a very good expose on convergent evolution.

    Why the flowers of many Prosthechea species are non-resupinate are really intriguing. Most orchids are actually upside down! We do not realize this because most orchid flowers present to us in resupinate form, in which the flower stem twists to present the lip pointing down by the time the flower opens. In other words, the twisting motion in the process of resupination causes the llabellum to be orientated below the other floral segments. In orchid, resupination is the rule, non-resupination is the exception. Therefore, the flowers of Prosthechea cochleata and other Prosthechea species are actually right side up, technically speaking!

    Assuming that Prosthechea relies on entomophily (pollination by insects) for reproduction, and knowing that the flowers of Prosthechea cochleata are not fragrant, then it is down to the colour of the flowers to charm the insects or moths, since entomophily usually occurs on plants that have developed coloured petals and a strong scent to attract insects. Since the scent is ruled out in this case, and since most moths are nocturnal, and since most if not all flowers pollinated by nocturnal animals tend to be white, and since Prosthechea cochleata and many other Prosthechea species are totally or predominantly white or near white, and since pollination is all important for flowers, my initial postulation linking the flower colour (whiteness) and structure (non-resupination) to biotic pollination (entomophily) and evolutionary biology (convergent evolution) is quite sound and tenable in the Prosthechea species concerned. 12 January 2014 at 09:37 · Edited · Like · 1

  • K-w SoundEagle Quoting from “Why are most orchid flowers resupinate? The main theory is that resupination orientates the lip to provide the orchid’s pollinator with a convenient landing pad. This theory sounds reasonable, although the American glossy bee Euglossa cordata is known to pollinate the flowers of several different catasetum species whether their flowers are resupinate or not.”

    The original source of information is:
    Resupination by J. & M. Arditti, R. Ernst and L.P. Lyman, Proc. 12th. World Orchid Conference, Japan, 1987.

    The Orchid Societies Council of Victoria (OSCOV) is the state body for Orchid Clubs in Victoria and has 29…
  • K-w SoundEagle Abstract:
    “Observations of flower buds of Dendrobium Tomie `Tokyo,’ D Indonesia, and seedlings of a Dendrobium hybrid flowering for the first time showed that all flower buds were borne with the labellum uppermost. Just before or during opening, the buds turned, positioning the lip below all other floral segments in a process known as resupination. The degree of turning depended on the orientation of the inflorescence relative to the ground and position of the pedicel. Individual flowers, at successive nodes along the inflorescence, alternated in turning clockwise and counterclockwise. Our results indicate that (1) only buds, flowers in the process of opening, and newly opened blossoms can undergo resupination; (2) mature flowers cannot reorient themselves if the angle of the inflorescence is changed; and (3) bending and twisting of the pedicel contribute to the final position of the flower.”

    Source: Opening and Resupination in Buds and Flowers of Dendrobium (Orchidaceae) Hybrids
    Leslie Paul Nyman, Noes Soediono and Joseph Arditti
    Botanical Gazette
    Vol. 145, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 215-221
    Published by: The University of Chicago Press
    Article Stable URL:

  • Alfredo Mo well not understand when I say Prosthechea cochleata is a hybrid, and it’s kind in the field have noticed two pollinators for this Genero one is a lepidopteran species Danaus gilippus thersippus Bates (monarch false) and a hymenopteran of the Vespidae family.

    This species is widely distributed throughout America, the Country of Belize has it as their national flower. 13 January 2014 at 22:52 · Unlike · 1

  • K-w SoundEagle Hi Edgar Alfredo Mo,
    Thank you very much for the extra information that you provided. You seem to know the species very well.

    Could you please kindly explain to us how and why the officials selected Prosthechea over other contenders as the national flower of Belize, granted that the wide distribution of the orchid throughout America could have been a factor? 13 January 2014 at 23:03 · Like

  • Alfredo Mo Well that is a factor Prosthechea cochleata is very common in the forests of Belize, national flower choose often depends on their rarity or how common in forests.

    There’s something I can not say this orchid is known as the Black Orchid Belize, it may be that as the African descendants in belize people they could have chosen.

    Our national flower Lycaste virginalis f. alba was chosen because of its rarity but a suggestion of Mrs. Leticia Southerland who saw the floor in a miami exposicionde suggested to our president to be our national flower. 13 January 2014 at 23:12 · Unlike · 2

  • K-w SoundEagle When you mentioned the “national flower Lycaste virginalis f. alba”, which country does that apply to, Guatemala or El Salvador? 13 January 2014 at 23:26 · Like
  • K-w SoundEagle An online search indicates that “Guatemala’s national flower, Lycaste Skinneri Alba (also known as the White Nun Orchid), is a rare flower in the Verapaz distict of Guatemala, symbolizing peace, beauty and art. A degree by General Jorge 1, in 1934 made the white nun the national flower. Since then its commercialization has been prohibited.”
  • Alfredo Mo Lycaste virginalis f. alba is the national flower of Guatemala flower El Salvador nation is no orchid is a plant called Yucca guatemalensis 14 January 2014 at 00:45 · Unlike · 1
  • Alfredo Mo Lycaste skinneri var.alba stands Lycaste virginalis f. alba, is effectively banned from sale in other countries Guatemala but breed and sell 14 January 2014 at 00:46 · Unlike · 1
  • Michael Angel Morales LLuch Prosthechea cochleata is a wide spread species growing from Noth America from Floriada all the way south through Central & South America and in the Carribean Islands. A native orchid here in Puerto Rico and the Logo OF OUR LOCAL ORCHID SOCIETY
  • K-w SoundEagle Hi Michael Angel Morales LLuch, welcome and thank you for your information about the distribution of Prosthechea cochleata and the emblematic importance of the orchid.

    In Southbank, Brisbane, there is an authentic Mexican restaurant called “El Torito” run by a Puerto Rican family. 15 January 2014 at 16:23 · Edited · Like

  • Michael Angel Morales LLuch LOL Adore Australia, spent a month in Northern Australia mostly in Daintree, another weeks in the Great Barrier reef Diving then went for 3 weeks Cains, Brisbane,Sydney, Melbourne right after the WOC in New Zealand. Want to go Back! 15 January 2014 at 16:36 · Edited · Unlike · 1
  • K-w SoundEagle Michael, could you please explain why the flowers of many Prosthechea species are non-resupinate? 15 January 2014 at 22:43 · Like
  • Alison Viatos These blooms have a sci fi feel about them ! 16 January 2014 at 17:19 · Unlike · 1
  • Alison Viatos Please excuse the blonde nature of my comment – on holiday & already relaxed !! The prev posts are v interesting – I just read them – now pink cheeked !! Extra nice to here someone from other side of the world ( the older side ) likes my countries NZ & Oz – we are v young but have unspoilt beauty !! 16 January 2014 at 17:27 · Unlike · 1
  • Alison Viatos Grammer /spelling error esp for kw – he’s a stickler . 16 January 2014 at 17:28 · Unlike · 1
  • Roy Lee I thought you wrote stickler. 16 January 2014 at 22:44 · Unlike · 1
  • Alfredo Mo A new natural hybrid between Prosthechea cochleata and P. radiata (Orchidaceae) from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
  • Alfredo Mo Prosthechea cochleata is a species in Guatemala is highly variable, both in the morphology of the plant and the flowers, all life depends on that area of my country appropriate if the woods are wetter warm, or warm dry forests. 14 May 2014 at 11:55 · Unlike · 1
  • Barbara Haywood OMG after all of That I am simply amazed! However Roy I have noticed that there are a few orchid species appearing that are now deemed to be natural hybrids, but with no explanations as to their parentage. I find this worrying and annoying! 14 May 2014 at 22:41 · Unlike · 1
  • Roy Lee Very true Barbara. I don’t know where the info to allow this is coming from. What appears in the RHS register, at times, is quite different to what is in the Kew List of Monocots. I believe the RHS is cash strapped & maybe the ‘oldies’ have gone & the young drongos are running things. The RHS ‘new’ website is up & running but technical problems??? are occuring least to say, they uploaded some out of date programs as well !! 14 May 2014 at 22:56 · Unlike · 1
  • Alfredo Mo Natural hybrids has always been in nature, the point is that they have never met, Guatemala is a country with great diversidas Zones lives, climates and microclimates, it makes the villages of intesecten species hitherto discovered because many of the taxonomic work is based on herbarium material from Mexico to South America there are endless natural hybrids of many genera and species. such as Gender Lophiaris no endless Hybrids between them are so far understood its distribution. I do not understand what your trouble. 14 May 2014 at 23:00 · Unlike · 1
  • Alfredo Mo RHS is an institution that records patented artificial hybrids for commercial use, but Kew recorded natural plants as natural hybrids found in the world that often has no commercial use. There also exists not only Tropico Kew. 14 May 2014 at 23:06 · Unlike · 1
  • Barbara Haywood Alfredo I recently looked up an oncidium that has always been classified as a species NOT a hybrid, but found that the RHS have it listed as a Natural Hybrid, but do not even suggest parentage. This is the problem!!!! 14 May 2014 at 23:13 · Unlike · 1
  • Alfredo Mo When beginning work querianos this plant as a species, but the town is ran strictly not identical plants were located, but large populations Prosthechea Prosthechea radita cochleata and its surroundings, this makes the assumption of a hybrid naturally, many taxonomists do species of plants that are hybrids possible, as with the Lycaste of Guatemala a few years ago as decribieron sebastianii Lycaste species but Onlycorpses found 2 or 3 floors, is more likely to be a hybrid. I leave a picture of Link Lycaste sebastianii
  • Alfredo Mo Some other people may like to study more about this proposal, would be excellent the only thing that would happen to see Prosthechea x chixoyensis be called, be named Prosthechea chixoyensis and without the letter x 14 May 2014 at 23:26 · Unlike · 1
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Photo & Video Contributions

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