Recently, I visited the New York Botanical Gardens to see the Thai Orchid exhibition. I had visited the show several years ago but the variety of different orchids displayed this year was even more incredible. The beautiful colors and sheer number of different flowers was a visual delight for the eyes. It was difficult to decide where to focus my energy as each display was more unique and amazing than the previous one! This prompted me to learn more about this favorite flower beyond my admiration for its physical beauty.
Not surprisingly, orchids are the largest group of blooming flowers with 25,000 species and over 100,000 varieties. Often associated with flowering tropical plants, orchids grow on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. They are also the national flower of many countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Belize, Argentina, Honduras, Panama, Cayman Island, Guatemala and Hong Kong.
Bet you didn’t know, orchids – from the Orchidaceae family – are named from the Greek word orchis meaning testicle. The ancient Greek botanist, Theophrastus, thought their fleshy underground tubers resembled testicles. Naturally, the Greeks associated virility with the orchid! If expectant parents wished for a male, the father would eat a large orchid tuber and if a girl was desired, the mother would ingest a small orchid tuber.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, the orchid continued to hold mysterious powers as people believed it enhanced male sexual prowess and fertility. Beliefs about the orchid’s fertility still hold today as couples hope these practices will bring them a multitude of children!
During the Victorian era, the orchid was a luxury item proudly showcased in homes to display one’s refined taste. Even though the Chinese have cultivated orchids for over 3,000 years, it was not until the 1600’s that visitors first brought the orchid to Europe.
By the mid 1800’s, the first hybrid orchid was cultivated, introducing the orchid to the flower world. Orchids have been held in high esteem since they were first discovered and now they commonly symbolize love, beauty, fertility, refinement and respect!
While all orchids symbolize love and beauty, we often associate different meanings with their color. In fact, flowers have their own language that stretches back thousands of years across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Who knew there was such a thing as “floriography” – a way to send secret messages through the use of flowers and floral arrangements. The popularity of this practice in the early 1900’s soared in Victorian England and the United States.
There are many examples of floriography today. Red roses are used as a symbol of love and passion. We give yellow flowers as a gesture of friendship or to celebrate new beginnings, while pink orchids communicate grace, joy and happiness. White flowers are a traditional sign of reverence, purity, elegance and beauty, unlike purple orchids which are seen as lofty and given as a sign of respect, admiration and royalty.
I love that orange orchids traditionally express a range of feelings from enthusiasm and warmth to fiery passion and intense desire. Green is meant to bring good fortune and blessings, or a wish for good health and longevity. While there is no true-blue orchid, some florists tint them blue as a way to make them rare, refreshing and profoundly unique.
The orchid is also attractive for reasons beyond its physical beauty. These beauties are used in Chinese medicine as herbal remedies to ease coughs and lung diseases, and also to treat other various ailments. Their fragrances make wonderful perfumes and beauty products, like the dried beans of the Vanilla Orchid. The Aztecs often used them for flavoring drinks and confections like ice cream, soft drinks and cakes.
Because of their tropical bearing and assumed rarity, many people mistakenly believe the orchid is difficult to grow. While they look delicate and are associated with difficulty in growing, they are surprisingly hardy. In fact, I have orchids plants that are nearly ten years old after following these simple rules: water only when they are almost dry, and drain the plant thoroughly once soaked to avoid root rot. This is the most common demise of orchid plants, next to the need for the right amount of light. Moving the plant to a variety of locations will also help it to thrive and ensure it blooms annually. The orchid blooms may last up to six weeks, guaranteeing maximum viewing pleasure!