Judging Orchid Shows

Many people attend orchid shows and see the ribbons and awards without any understanding of the judging process that took place

Orchid shows feature hundreds, if not, thousands of flowers arranged in artful displays.  In many shows, each of these plants are judged by teams of experienced judges and awarded ribbons or trophies.  The process by which this is accomplished is often mysterious to some people. This is an overview of how an orchid show is judged.

As there are many different kinds of orchids, so are there many different kinds of orchid shows.  I will address the show with which I am familiar and that is an American Orchid Society (AOS) accredited show as we see in the northeastern US and eastern Canada.  Specifically, I will refer to the annual show of the Southern Ontario Orchid Society (SOOS).

Plants are judged on several levels:  Ribbon, Trophy (including best-in-show) and AOS awards.

Ribbon judging looks at similar plants and determines which are the best.  They are awarded simple ribbons 1st, 2nd 3rd sometimes there is an honourable mention too.  To group similar plants together, a system of classes is used.  These classes are divisions based on genera, species/hybrid, and form/colour.  The Mid-America Orchid Congress maintains a basic list of around 110 classes.  Each individual show committee will determine if this class system works for their show. At SOOS, their class schedule is based on the Mid-America classes, but is augmented to allow for the plants that may appear in abundance at the show. ie Phragmepedium species (Mid-America class 42) are subdivided into three classes (SOOS classes 42a pink, red/yellow/orange; 42b green/brown; 42c long petal types).  At SOOS, classes are added for art and photography. 

The organization of ribbon judging is no small feat.  I have written a separate article that details this process.  With several hundred plants entered into over 100 classes, most shows rely on a computerized database to organize lists for the judges so they can find the plants.  Typically, the plants are registered on the set-up day (at SOOS we are able to pre-register plants on-line).  The plants are given numbered tags and the judges are given a list of the plants numbers in each class.  For a normal weekend show, Setup would be Friday and judging would be early Saturday morning before the show opens to the public.  On larger shows, this puts considerable pressure on the judges to get everything done in a few short hours. 

Ribbon judging is usually done by several teams of people.  The judging chair (an accredited AOS judge) will assign a group of classes to each team in an effort distribute the workload.  The judging teams are usually made up of on at least one AOS judge and a number of “lay-judges”, plus one or more Ribbon Clerks who record the judge’s decisions and actually place the ribbons on the plants. Together, this team takes their list of plants and proceeds to judge the plants in each class.  This means looking at each plant at least once and then discussing which plants are better.

Trophy judging adds to the pressure.  Trophies are usually awards for the best of a group of classes (like all Paphs). Best-in-show is also a trophy.  These frequently require collaboration between two or more judging teams as they will each have classes that are covered by that trophy.  Best-in-Show and other major trophies are coordinated by the Judging Chair.

After all that is done, then the AOS judges will go around the show and nominate plants for AOS judging.  The intricacies of the AOS award system is beyond the scope of this article, but basically, plants that are thought to be good enough to bear closure examination are pulled from the display and taken to a separate room.  Unfortunately it often happens that the show will open with the best plants absent for a short while until the judges award it (in which case it needs to be photographed before returning to the show) or pass it and it is returned.

With a group of experienced judges and a well organized show, this process appears effortless, but it requires the serious effort by a lot of people. But the results are worth it.  The growers are rewarded for their efforts and the public learns a little bit more about orchids





Max Wilson is the webmaster for Ravenvision Photographic; as well as the Southern Ontario Orchid Society.  He has been growing orchids for 15 years.

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