We reveal the history and mystery behind one of the world's most treasured plants.
Some are exotic and beautiful. Others are just plain strange. Seemingly temperamental, invariably alluring, the Orchidaceae—Latin for the orchid family—is the largest in the plant kingdom, with hundreds of genera, thousands of species and more cultivar names than most ordinary mortals can remember or pronounce.
The earliest references to orchids are found in Chinese literature from around 800 BC. Not much later, Confucius commented on their fragrance, which can vary from cinnamon to jasmine, lemon or even chocolate. Their supposed medicinal uses are found in herbal guides around the world. Vanilla, for example—which comes from a tropical orchid with roots that can reach more than 90 feet (27 metres) in length—is mentioned in an 18th-century Aztec herbal guide. Its alleged benefits? Acting as a stimulant for “nervous disorders,” serving as an aphrodisiac, and protecting travellers from disease.
Due more in modern times to their exotic—sometimes erotic—good looks than to their medicinal uses, the orchid’s popularity remains unabated. Western culture has had a love affair with orchids since the late 1700s. Their appearance in Europe was a result of seafaring orchid hunters—tough guys who risked disease and sometimes death to bring these strange-looking plants back from distant lands for aristocrats who could afford glass buildings in which to grow them.
“There’s a whole group of lady’s slippers that people really go nuts over,” says Judy White, an author and former trustee of the American Orchid Society. These are the “pouched orchids,” she says, plants with what appears to be a large, swollen, hollow flower petal. These include the Cypripediums, Paphiopedilums and Phragmipediums. “They are among the most bizarre-looking plants,” she adds, “invariably with stunning flowers in shades of pink, green and yellow—even dark reds that approach black.”
There are also orchid aficionados passionate about strangely striped or patterned leaves, White adds. Some of the Paphiopedilum orchids, for example, have mottled foliage in tones of silver and grey, much coveted by collectors. Another orchid, the Liparis, has foliage streaked in purple or bronze.
“Some people go wild over the Bletillas,” White says, “which can cost thousands of dollars.” Also known as the hardy Chinese orchid—this China native is happy outdoors in cold areas—the Bletilla is sometimes called the hyacinth orchid because of its glorious sweet scent.
For some truly peculiar shapes and perfumes, it’s hard to beat the Masdevallias. These orchids are mostly epiphytes native to the high elevations of the Andes. Some of their flowers appear to have elongated “tails” and sport the tiniest of petals. These strange blooms, a number of which are produced in bright shades, often last weeks.