The Orchid, the Lily, and the Iris

Quick! What is this flower? An orchid, a lily, or an iris?

You may have been able to answer immediately because you are very familiar with all three kinds of flowers, but what was it about this one that told you what it is? If you didn’t know what it was, don’t worry, the answer will be given later.

Orchids, lilies, and irises each belong to a different family: Orchidaceae (22,000 species), Liliaceae (1600 species), and Iridaceae (1500 species), respectively. Each family is widely distributed throughout the world. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

The flowers are so showy and beautiful that they’ve been thoroughly cultivated, and if you’re at all familiar with flowers, you can probably easily distinguish any of the three cultivated flowers. But what if you happen upon one in the wild?

It happened to our friend and naturalist, Michael. He sent around an image by email asking for guesses about a plant he found growing near his new home. He thought it might be an orchid but wasn’t sure. Our friend Carla responded with the tip that prompted this post (tip used by permission):

Peek straight into the center of the flower and look to see if it has long filament-like stamens holding pollen conspicuously on the tips. If yes, you might have a lily.

An orchid, however, would have a solid column holding two or more solid masses, called pollinia, which stick to pollinators, probably on the upper side of the throat.

What a simple and straightforward tip! So let’s look.

I couldn’t find a good image of a Tiger Lily (to keep the theme of the leopard-spot flower in the original image) that was not copyrighted, but here’s a lily that was blooming in our yard in early June this year. Click to enlarge or click on Hi-res for higher resolution options.

White Lilies Hi-res

Nice long, filament-like stamens (male reproductive parts) holding pollen conspicuously on the tips (nothing more conspicuous than black pollen against a white petal!)

Now, let’s compare it with a much smaller orchid that bloomed in April of this year and that keeps the leopard-spot theme (no reason to do this, just fun). The image is a bit fuzzy – I can’t remember if the wind was blowing or whether I had a shaky hand that day – but you can tell that the interior of this flower does not resemble a lily in the least.

Orchid With Leopard Spots Hi-res

There’s the solid column holding two solid masses, the pollinia. As you might have guessed from Carla’s tip, the pollinia are carried away en masse from the flower. No dithering around with small pollen grains here.

Okay, so Carla’s tip had to do with orchids and lilies. Why did I bring in irises? Because when I went outside to start seeing for myself what Carla’s tip was all about, I saw the mystery flower at the beginning of the post. It’s an iris, and when I peek inside I see something a little bit in between the orchid and the lily.

Iris Hi-res

The stamens are not long filaments with the pollen conspicuously at the ends. They are thick and the black pollen grains are on the side rather than the end. Notice that there are only 3 stamens, not the several we find in lilies. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics between lilies and irises. It may not be so easy to tell that these pollen grains are not glued together into pollinia, but if you were to take this flower apart, you’d see that there are 3 distinct stamens, not the one column that you see in orchids, and you’d see the individual pollen grains crumble off.

So there you have it. A simple way to tell lilies from orchids and even from irises. In short:

  • Lilies have long stamens with conspicuous pollen at the ends.
  • Irises have only 3 stamens.
  • Orchids have one column supporting two or more packages of pollen called pollinia.

The answer, then, to the question at the beginning of the post is: you can tell that this flower is an iris because it has 3 stamens and no pollinia. And, by the way, Michael’s flower was an orchid.

Other differences, of course, can be found among these three families, but these differences are fun and useful, in my mind.

Update: The iris has a scientific name! It was recognized as Neomarica longifolia by user tem0dium on Flickr. With that head start, you can expect a closer look at it sometime in the future.

10 thoughts on “The Orchid, the Lily, and the Iris”

  1. Hi Barbee’

    Thank you for checking out the blog. Your own blog looks great, too. Think I’ll go spend some time there. Neat!


  2. Mary, thanks for your link. I’ve seen the name of your blog around but I didn’t know that it belong to you. Now I can really enjoy it! I’ll keep my eyes on those lilies. Cheers.

  3. What an excellent tutorial, and so simple to understand when you explain it the way you have. In the Serrania de Ronda (Southern Spain) we have all three families often within very close proximity to each other which makes it important to know which is which.

    Thank you.

  4. Thanks for the good explanation giving about these flowers, it helps a lot for knowing the differences among them,

  5. I would like to request permission to use the images found on this website for a university project(first year)

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