Cymbidium Orchids: Symbolism of Elegance and Luxury
Orchids have fascinated people across the world for thousands of years, particularly Cymbidiums. In its history of evolution, the oldest known evidence is a fossil found in 2007 in the Dominican Republic. A bee with orchid pollen on its back was perfectly preserved in Amber, and scientists were able to date it back 20 million years. Using this fossil, the age of the earliest ancestors of Cymbidiums were dated back to around 84 million years ago.
The uniqueness compared to other plant species have captivated famous scholars in history. Charles Darwin wrote a book on the pollination of orchids after completing his treatise on evolution, 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859. He acknowledged orchids to “rank amongst the most singular and most modified forms in the vegetable kingdom.” It is one of the largest families of flowering plants on earth with over 25,000 species. The genus Cymbidium, in particular, stands out for its historic relevance and deep impact on cultures across the world.
Let us see how Cymbidiums came to be known as 'The King of Orchids.'
Actress Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher during their wedding ceremony in Las Vegas on May 12, 1959.
Evidence points to Cymbidiums being one of the earliest orchids to be grown by people. It was first recorded in the Chinese herbal book, The Book of Songs, which dates back around three thousand years. Around 2500 years ago, Confucius also praised the beauty and fragrance of Cymbidiums and called it Lanhua, the character in Chinese calligraphy for grace, fragrance, and purity. He complimented, “Che Lan that grows in deep forests never withholds its fragrance even when it is not being appreciated.”
Portrait of Prince Yinli Guo, with Cymbidium in planter (right, front) China, Qing dynasty, 1731
Since then, Cymbidiums have held a reputation for luxury and artistic significance in Chinese culture and this reputation has also spread across the world. Countries especially influenced by the Chinese Han dynasty as early as 202 BC, include Japan, Korea, and Vietnam where they are still revered and cultivation flourishes till this day.
Cultivation of Cymbidium species in China began as early as 200 AD during the Wei dynasty where it served as a symbol of status and luxury for noblemen. Along with the beautiful physical form to decorate the palaces, the plants were also sought for its fragrance. The earliest book on cultivation practices was the ‘Treatise of Orchids of Jin Zang’ published around 1233 AD. The growing instructions arose from decades of practice growing through trial and error and observation of the plants' habitat.
In terms of culture, from the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279) Cymbidiums increased in artistic significance after being referred to as one of ‘the Four Gentlemen.’ The four plants, Cymbidiums, plum, bamboo and chrysanthemums started to be used as symbols of virtues that define a gentleman. In this case, Cymbidiums represented the virtues of nobility, humility, integrity and self-restraint. This was portrayed through paintings, poetry and calligraphy based on Cymbidiums. Thus the cultivation and appreciation of Cymbidiums are ingrained in cultures of Eastern Asian countries through thousands of years and still thrives today.
Classic Hybrid Cymbidiums
Cym. Pistachio Mint 'Geyserland'
Famed botanist, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, made a journey to the Himalayas between 1847-51. He travelled to Sikkim and Darjeeling and discovered many Cymbidium species, which would eventually be used to create the Classic Hybrid Cymbidiums of today. For his extensive work in identifying Cymbidiums, a species was also named after him as Cymbidium Giganteum var. Hookerianum.
That said, orchids in general first arrived in the UK from South America in the early 19th century quickly becoming a symbol of exotic luxury. Withing this trend many nurseries in the UK began to cultivate and hybridize species of Cymbidiums. Among them, McBean's Nursery became a central figure in the promotion and spread of Cymbidium across the world. It is one of the oldest nurseries in the UK established in 1897 by James McBean. James McBean supplied orchids collected from across the globe to the British Royal family for important events. In early 20th century, McBeans was already hybridizing quality Cymbidium plants and winning awards for it, with the best breeders in the world. Along the way, Cymbidiums grew in reputation creating an audience of enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe.
His son, Albert McBean, emphasized the importance of Cymbidiums as a cut flower in the market and by 1930 he was focused on producing high-quality Cymbidium flowers. Tissue culture of Cymbidiums was being developed around this time making the hand propagated plants hard to find, and expensive to buy.
During World War 2, orchid nurseries in the UK began exporting Cymbidiums to the USA. Upon noticing that the supply boats were returning empty after the supplying UK with arms and essential goods, nurseries and other businesses began exporting to the USA on a large scale. Most of the orchids, especially the prized Cymbidiums, found their way to Santa Barbara, California for its popularity there, and suitable environment. It became a hub for Cymbidium cultivation and is still one of the global hot-spots today. From there many varieties of Cymbidiums further spread across the Pacific Ocean to Australia and New Zealand.
Since then, the last 50 years have been pivotal in and accelerated the development of Cymbidium hybrids. The process of hybridizing entails taking two of the best plants with the preferred characteristics, such as colour or size, and cross-breeding the two plants. This amplifies the preferred characteristics in the resulting plants. For example, if a small white variety is crossed with a large yellow variety it may lead to a large white variety. After decades of breeding, the classic hybrid cymbidiums of today are a sight to behold, improving on the best characteristics of its past ancestors. Today one can expect to find larger flowers that have an array of mesmerizing colours, are symmetric, and vigorous.
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