O is for Orchid

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

In China, the orchid is one of the “noble four” plants along with the plum, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. The Chinese people cultivated this elegant plant for over two thousand years. Confucius wrote of the flower, “The orchid’s fragrance should be enjoyed by royals in their palaces, yet they look solitary among grasses in the wild.” He then likened the orchid’s plight to those of unappreciated scholars. He also referred to being in good company as “like entering a room full of orchids. After a while, you become soaked in the fragrance and don’t notice it.” The Fai Cheun translates to something like, “With your heart noble like an orchid and your speech like elegant embroidery, you have shown great magnanimity and abundant affection.”

Orchids represent nobility, elegance, and excellence of character. Their toughness becomes symbolic of tenacity. Because of their perceived resemblance to human reproductive organs, the orchid also represents virility, fertility, and sexuality. Orchids are found everywhere on the earth except deserts and glaciers, and there are over 20,000 species in the world. The smallest measure a mere 2 MM in width. They were named by the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastos.

Ancient Greeks believed prospective parents could influence the gender of their child by eating orchids. If they desired a male, the father ate thick, fleshier tubers. If they wanted a female, the mother ate thin, small tubers. The Turks made an ice cream from orchid tubers to enhance male sexual performance. Other cultures that used orchid for fertility included Africa, Asia, and South America.

In Greek mythology, the son of a nymph and a satyr, Orchis, attempted to rape a priestess at a feast honoring Bacchus. As punishment, wild beasts tore him apart. The pieces transformed into orchid plants. In another creation myth, a Filipino Queen vowed to keep herself apart from everyone until her husband the King returned from a war. She tied herself to a tree and magically transformed into an orchid which bore the pattern of her gown. In Medieval Europe, people believed slipper orchids sprung from the ground where animals mated.

Samurai and shaman in the Americas used the flower to see visions. Native American tribes called a variety of orchid “Moccasin Flower” and took it to relieve pain and as a sleep aid. A tale of how these pink flowers came to be springs from the Ojibwe who tell of a girl who embarked on a journey to retrieve medicine during a storm. Along the way, the girl lost her slipper, but because of the urgency, she persisted, though her feet grew bloodied. Where her bloody footprints touched the earth, moccasin flowers bloomed.

Aztecs harvested vanilla, a type of orchid, and mixed it with cocoa and pepper to create a strengthening elixir. When the plant arrived in Renaissance Europe, fashionable ladies adopted a variation of this custom, having their maids bring melted hot chocolates to church services since liquids were not technically breaking the fasting required on days of religious obligation.

During the Victorian age, the fashionable set collected orchids as status symbols. Gifts of orchids were understood as declarations of passion. The color of the flower was code for further messages. For example, a white bloom represented innocence.

The orchid is the traditional flower for fourteenth and twenty-fifth wedding anniversaries. Ancestral practitioners in China used orchid as a remedy for coughs, kidney disease, and problems with lungs, stomachs, and eyes.  Orchids were consumed by the Chinese and Greeks as aphrodisiacs. It is used in perfumes and aromatherapy, and of course, vanilla extract remains a prized culinary ingredient.

Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” explores how obsession leads to madness. Michelle Wan wrote three novels named for orchids, “Deadly Slipper,” “The Orchid Shroud,” and “A Twist of Orchids.” Nero Wolfe was an avid orchidist, and Mary Motes wrote a tongue-in-cheek look at the orchid industry in south Florida. One of the Nancy Drew Mysteries had an orchid as a central plot point. Luigi Berliocchi wrote a non-fiction book “Orchid in Lore and Legend” which explores the fascinating history of the plant at length. H.G. Wells’s short story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” tells of Wedderburn and a hot house holding a mysterious plant. As a pop-culture reference, the wrestler “Gorgeous George” uses the handle “Wild Orchid.”

vanilla orchids