Just as I wonder
whether it’s going to die,
the orchid blossoms
and I can’t explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure
comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower
opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.
—opening stanzas to “The Orchid Flower” by Sam Hamill
The New York Botanical Garden has an annual Orchid Show displayed in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Admission to the Orchid Show is included with the general admission fee to the Garden. This year’s theme was The Garden Island of Key West. I often lose sight of these themes; I get caught up in the beauty of the flowers and my surroundings. The colors, shapes, sizes and fragrances of the orchids on display help to transport me to another world.
The Ancient Greeks believed that Orchis was the son of a nymph and a satyr. While celebrating at a feast for Dionysios, Orchis committed sacrilege; he attempted to have relations with a priestess. He was torn apart by wild beasts. Orchis’ father prayed that his son be made whole again; instead the gods allowed him to metamorphose into a slender, flowering plant.
Orchids were thought to be powerful aphrodisiacs, the food of satyrs. We can thank the Ancient Greeks for the genus name órkhis, meaning testicle, because of the shape of the twin tubers in some species of Orchis. Ancient Greek women believe they could determine the gender of their unborn children with orchid roots. If the father ate large, new tubers, the child would be male; if the mother ate small tubers, the child would be female.
Dioscorides, the first century A.D. Greek physician, suggested that orchids influenced sexuality. Because of the orchid’s exotic appearance, its fragrance, and the frankly erotic aspect of its flower’s reproductive parts, people have associated the plant with virility, fertility and gender determination. John Ruskin, the English Victorian writer critic, called the orchid’s flowers “prurient apparitions.”
In ancient China and Japan orchids were held in high esteem for their esthetic and artistic qualities. Confucius likened the orchid flower to the superior man and its scent to the pleasures of friendship.