The History, Meaning and Symbolism of Orchids

April 30, 2022 | Interesting facts

Orchids are such a majestic flower that can attract your attention immediately. They can be found in different regions throughout the world, and are considered rich with symbolism and mythology. Indeed, there is something magical about orchids and their ability to convey deep messages and meanings. Let’s dive deep into the meaning of orchids to learn their secrets and to understand their messages more clearly.

How Did Orchids Become So Popular Around the World

Before we start to talk about the meaning and symbolism of orchids, let’s learn something about orchids and their history.

Plants of the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae)

There is much to learn and to appreciate about the amazing family of Orchids.
Orchidaceae is one of the largest families of plants, with nearly 30,000 different orchid species and around 120,000 orchid hybrids and cultivars worldwide.

They are one of the most recognizable flowers in the world, yet it may surprise many to see them growing wild in their native habitat.
The vast majority of orchids are native to tropical forests of Central and South America, but they can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

This diverse family of plants have evolved to withstand a variety of environmental factors. Most of them are epiphytes, meaning they grow anchored to trees or shrubs instead of soil. And they are not parasitic plants, since they only use another plant for support but not for nourishment. On the other hand, terrestrial orchids grow on the ground and are either creeping or erect.

They are not only versatile, but also structurally diverse and incredibly beautiful. Whether epiphytic or terrestrial, orchid flowers come in numerous shapes, sizes and colors.

Orchids have a tremendously rich and intriguing history that is as colorful as their blooms. From the dinosaur era to the present day, they have evolved to be the ever-loving plants!

A Brief History of Orchids

  • The first orchids appeared on earth almost 120 million years ago, making them one of the first flowering plants. They first became popular in China and Japan around 4,000 years ago, when they were used for medicinal purposes.
  • They have been cultivated in China since the time of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), who wrote numerous poems about orchids.
  • The name “orchid” comes from the Greek word “orkhis”, literally meaning “testicle”, because of the shape of the root tubers in some species of the genus Orchis, similar to human testes. This name is attributed to Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC), a Greek philosopher and botanist, who first used the word “orchis” to indicate the particular group of plants whose roots are thought to resemble male genitalia. This has led to the mistaken conclusion that the orchids possess aphrodisiac properties.
  • In the medieval period, orchids were considered to be the flowers of the royals and were believed to have magical qualities
  • Many species were introduced to Europe by New World explorers, who found new varieties and carried them back to their home nations. They searched the remote regions of the world to collect and cultivate unique, new species.
  • In the 19th century during the Victorian era, orchids were so rare that only the rich could afford them. Many wealthy people became obsessed with orchids, particularly for rare and unusual species. The Victorian obsession with orchids literally became known as orchidelirium or orchidomania.
  • Many countries have adopted various species of orchids as their national flowers. These are mostly countries from Central and South America.
  • Today, orchids are one of the most popular flowering plants, with annual sales of more than $4 billion USD.

What Do Orchids Symbolize

Orchids’ symbolism is as deep and complex as their rich history. They are such a timeless and iconic flower full of symbolism around the world. Their beauty is unmatched, and they can take our breath away.

Orchids are a lovely way to celebrate just about every occasion, from birthdays to anniversaries, and everything in between. Being very versatile and universal, they look great in any flower arrangement or bouquet.

In general, orchids symbolize elegance, charm, beauty, love, fertility and strength, but also luxury and wealth.

They have different meanings in different cultures, and each individual color holds special meaning as well.

The Meaning of Orchids in Different Cultures

Having recognized the complexity and growing popularity of orchids, people started to create various meanings around them.

Orchids have become very popular throughout the world due to their unique beauty and the various characteristics that these flowers possess. They are full of symbolism and have been linked to a wide range of significance in different cultures and eras.

The Significance of Orchids in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, orchids were thought to have aphrodisiac qualities and were sometimes eaten to improve fertility, virility and sex determination.

The word “orchid” generally means “testicle” in Greek, and ancient Greeks believed that eating orchids is beneficial to one’s health and sexual functioning.

Ancient Greeks were so impressed by these wonderful flowers that they speculated about genders of unborn babies based on the orchid root tubers. For example, if the father ate large tubers, the baby would be male, and if the mother ate small tubers, the child would be female.

Orchids and Ancient Roman Rituals

The ancient Romans were obsessed with orchids. There is numerous evidence and proofs suggesting that orchids were more than just flowers to them.

Since Roman mythology is very similar to Greek mythology, their myths were more or less identical, as well as their beliefs about the aphrodisiac quality of orchids.

In ancient Rome, Orchids were closely associated with sexuality and fertility, and their roots were eaten or steep as an aphrodisiac.
In Roman medicine, the orchid-based drink called Satyrion was considered by the Ancient Romans to be a powerful aphrodisiac. They firmly believed that using satyrion would increase their sexual stamina and their sexual drive.

Orchids had also significant importance in the culture and art of ancient Romans. The most famous example were the orchids depicted on the Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”) in Rome, a massive stone pillar erected by the emperor Augustus in the first century BC.

In Roman times, orchids were also thought to be a symbol of wealth, rebirth and prosperity, because of their rarity in nature.

Orchids in the Victorian Era

In the Victorian Era, the orchids were so rare they became a symbol of luxury and wealth. They were very expensive, except for wealthy merchants or royal families during that time.

Victorians got so crazy about orchids that they financed expeditions to far-off lands to collect new species and bring them home. These plants were status symbols and could only be seen in noble houses. Aside from royalty, they also represented dignity and admiration.

Orchids in Chinese Cultural History

In traditional Chinese culture, orchids are associated with dignity, integrity and friendship. They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over two millennia, and stood as a symbol of good health and longevity.

Cymbidium orchids have been popular in China for a long time, and they truly represent the Chinese spirit.
These lovely and versatile plants are thought to bring wealth, prosperity and good fortune to those who own them. They have been grown in China since the time of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), who dubbed the Cymbidium orchid as the “King of fragrant flowers”. He was also the first to document the Cymbidium orchid in writing and someone who was deeply in love with orchids.

Orchids are still very popular in China today and used for many occasions as gifts to make someone smile. They are known to represent beauty and love that we share with others.

China has rich orchid species diversity, with approximately 200 genera and more than 1700 species. In 2021, Chinese researchers have discovered 31 new species of wild orchids in Sichuan, China, and many more species are likely to be discovered.

Orchids in Japanese Folklore

In ancient Japan, orchids were considered a symbol of respect and admiration, and were also a manifestation of noble status in ancient times.

Some species, such as Vanda falcata (formerly Neofinetia falcata) and Dendrobium moniliforme, have been grown and cultivated in Japan for centuries.
Vanda falcata is the first orchid ever to be grown in Japan. It is also known as the “Samurai Orchid” because in the 17th century the Tokugawa shoguns were obsessed with this orchid and held it as a symbol of power and wealth. Samurai warriors would cultivate this plant and use it during the battle attached to their swords for good luck and victory in battle.

The Importance of Orchids in Central and South America

The majority of species of orchids are native to Central America and northern South America, and has played a significant role in the culture of the inhabitants.

What Did Orchids Mean to the Aztecs

The Aztecs were one of the world’s greatest civilizations and one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries, who existed in what is now Mexico. They were a warrior society, and the orchids were commonly associated with strength, power and resilience.

They produced an elixir made of chocolate and orchids that they used not only for medicinal purposes, but also to boost them before and throughout battle and to help them to relax afterward.

Modern-day Orchids

Currently, orchids are found in many Central and South American countries. They are very popular and appreciated there, and are usually found in tropical forests, but also in semi-desert regions and near the seashore.

Many Central and South American countries have adopted various species of orchids as their national flowers, such as Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela, where orchids grow in their natural habitat. And in each country, the meaning of orchid flower is different.

Country Orchid Species Adopted Symbolism
Belize Prosthechea cochleata
(Black Orchid)
1981 longevity and endurance
Brazil Cattleya labiata
(Crimson Cattleya)
1818 pride, fertility and virility
Colombia Cattleya trianae
(Christmas Orchid)
1936 strength and resilience, but also womanhood and fertility
Costa Rica Guarianthe skinneri
(Guaria Morada)
1939 wealth and good fortune
Guatemala Lycaste virginalis
(White Nun Orchid)
1934 peace, love and beauty
Honduras Rhyncholaelia digbyana
(Digby’s Beaked Laelia)
1969 freedom and peace
Venezuela Cattleya Mossiae
(Easter Orchid)
1951 beauty and grace

Different Colors of Orchids and Their Meanings

Orchids come in a rainbow of colors and shades, and each color has a different meaning. Let’s find out what each color stands for and which color works best for you.

Purple Orchids

While purple orchids can be found in almost all genera, some orchids such as the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) are predominantly purple.

Purple orchids symbolize dignity, royalty and admiration.

They are a perfect gift for telling someone how much respect and admiration you have for them.

White Orchids

White orchids are a gift of classic beauty symbolizing innocence and purity.

Phalaenopsis orchids (Moth Orchids) are one of the most popular white orchids, and one of the most popular flowering houseplants in the world due to their exotic, long-lasting flowers. Moth Orchids can be found in various colors, but white is the most common and the most desirable.

Pink Orchids

Pink orchids mean grace, happiness and playfulness. They are very delicate, yet so persistently life-enhancing. Pink orchids are linked to instant happiness, improving a person’s mood over the long run.

They can also symbolize fertility and femininity, and are great gifts for the brave women in your life.

Red Orchids

As with many red flowers, red orchids are most associated with love, passion, romance and desire.
And indeed, there’s something about red orchids that you cannot separate from romance. They are the right choice to give to someone special in your life. Whether you’re looking to send anniversary flowers or you want to make a romantic gesture to someone special in your life, red orchids are the way to go.

However, red orchids are also considered a symbol of power, strength, courage and determination.

Orange Orchids

Orange orchids are certainly not common, but are also available. For example, Platanthera ciliaris is a terrestrial orchid with showy orange flowers that are clustered in racemes.

These orchids stand for enthusiasm and pride, but also represent victory and success. They are ideal for celebrating a job well done.

Green Orchids

Some orchids are also green in color. The genus Platanthera has a variety of green orchids that can be gifted to your loved ones on different occasions.

Green orchids symbolize good fortune, wealth, and good health. They are perfect to send someone a good luck gift.

Blue Orchids

Blue orchids are very rare in nature, but they do exist. There are very few species that are blue in color such as Thelymitra crinita, commonly known as the Blue Lady Orchid. This species represents rarity and spirituality, but also charm and beauty.

The shades of blue will increase the good energy in your environment, as well as the overall sense of good vibes.

Yellow Orchids

Yellow orchids embody the meaning of rebirth and a new beginning. They reflect positive energies and are most suitable for people who are in distress, providing optimism and hope.

They can also symbolize friendship, longevity and joy.