The orchid’s name comes from the Greek word literally meaning “testicle”, because of the shape of the root. The Greek myth of Orchis explains the origin of the plants:
Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr, had once come upon a festival of Dionysus (Bacchus) in the forest. He boldly intruded and began carousing and drinking till he had far too much. His good sense gone he became increasingly obnoxious and rowdy and attempted to rape a priestess of Dionysus. For his grave insult, the infuriated Bacchanalians bested him and tore him apart. Grieve stricken Orchis’s father prayed and prayed for him to be restored, but the gods instead changed him into a flower.
Orchids are interesting flowers by far and somewhat difficult to nurture. A lot of painstaking care goes into fostering these rare flowers.
Orchids have bilateral symmetry (zygomorphism), many resupinate flowers, a nearly always highly modified petal (labellum), fused stamens and carpels, and extremely small seeds.
A majority of orchids are perennial epiphytes, which grow anchored to trees or shrubs in the tropics and subtropics.
Some orchids, such as Neottia and Corallorhiza, lack chlorophyll, so are unable to photosynthesize, ingeniously however they obtain energy and nutrients by parasitising soil fungi through the formation of orchid mycorrhizas. The fungi involved include those that form ectomycorrhizas with trees and other woody plants, parasites such as Armillaria, and saprotrophs. These orchids are known as myco-heterotrophs. They may continue to obtain carbon from their mycorrhizal fungi during germination and seedling growth, and even photosynthetic adult plants.
In Europe the Orchid flower in the “language and meaning of flowers” stands for luxury. To give someone an orchid means: “I will make life sweet for you.”
In China, Orchids, or Lan Hua, are the emblem of love and beauty, and stands for fragrance and refinement, being also symbolic of numerous progeny. Confucius remarked on its exquisite characteristics, and it is therefore emblematic of the perfect of superior man.
Orchid Pavilion Gathering
(The Orchid Pavilion Gathering as depicted in an 18th-century Japanese painting)
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering (353 CE) was a cultural and poetic event during the Six Dynasties era, in China. This event itself has a certain inherent and poetic interest in regards to the development of landscape poetry and the philosophical ideas of Zhuangzi.
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering of 42 literati included Xie An and Sun Chuo (320?-380?) and Wang Pin-Chih (fl. 400) at the Orchid Pavilion (Lanting) near Shaoxing, Zhejiang, during the Spring Purification Festival, on the third day of the third month, to compose poems and enjoy the wine. As depicted in this painting: the gentlemen had engaged in a drinking contest- wine cups can be seen clearly floating down a small winding creek as the men sit along its banks. Typically whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup was required to empty it and write a poem. This activity was known as “floating goblets”, or liu shang. In the end, twenty-six of the participants composed thirty-seven poems.
The gathering at the Orchid Pavilion is also famous for the excellent quality of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi (303-361) who was both one of the participants as well as the author and calligrapher of the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion.
Picture of Wang Xizhi
Tao of Orchid
by Sungsook Hong Setton
The plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo are considered the four noble (or gentlemen) plants. As one of the four noble plants, the orchid is often the subject of poems as well as of water-ink paintings. The concept of the “four noble plants” first appeared in the work of Gin Keyu (1558-1639) and specifically his record of four plants.
As difficult as it is to paint orchids, it is even more difficult to paint the orchid’s fragrance.
It is said that Confucius originally drew attention to this delicate plant, exclaiming: “With a fragrance fit for princes, why are you buried among the common weeds?”
From olden times the appearance of the wild orchid, which grew deep in the mountains, was compared to the mind of a noble and cultivated scholar bureaucrat, who had transcended the greed and fame-seeking of the secular world. The orchid is known as a symbol of purity and noble virtue due to its fragrance. This symbolism goes back to the Ch’in dynasty of the 3rd century. Ch’u Yuan, a patriotic poet, regarded the orchid as a mirror of one’s moral life.
The rarity and uniqueness of the orchid is vividly expressed in these two poems which I have translated:
Even though the world is filled with confusion
When I gaze at one orchid
I can forget all my problems.
– Song Sunam
On the dark cliff hundreds of weeds are withering
And yet the orchid bounds with vigor
The noble person dwells in steep, isolated places
He is indeed different from normal people
– Chen Hsie n Chang (Ming dynasty)