The ORCHID FAMILY is made up of some 700 to 800 genera, the genus cymbidium itself containing some 50 to 70 separate species out of a total of some 30,000 orchid species overall. In addition plant breeders have created many thousands of man made hybrids which make up the majority of plants grown. The native species are native of the monsoonal forest foothills of the himalayas, with the warmer growing Asiatic species from the tropical lowland monsoonal forests. The species come from the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal, running through China and Japan, Indochina down to Malaysia to Australia.

The derivation of the name 'cymbidium' is unclear. The Swedish botanist Olaf Swartz created the name in 1800, which literally translated means 'boat like' because a "cymba" is a slender rowboat. Unfortunately this name is not descriptive of the shape of a cymbidium flower, and it has been suggested that Swartz may have had 'cymbium' in mind instead of 'cymba'. A 'cymbium' is a small slender shallow drinking vessel with a handle, a form which can be related to the shape of the lip of the species originally used to describe the genus, Cymbidium aloifolium. This bears a lip which is recurved or bent backwards into a handle, with the erect side lobes indicating a bowl, as can be seen in the following illustration.

Cymbidiums have the longest recorded history of any orchid, the earliest records coming from the Orient (China and Japan). Cymbidiums have become idealised in Chinese philosophy to be recognised as a symbol for superior med and elegant women, the term being used for both of these and orchids is LAN.

The earliest records of Chinese orchids are contained in folk songs composed before the time of Confucius (551-479 BC.) Confucius is recorded to have said that "the association with a superior person is like entering a hall of fragrant orchids" Written records date from 30-124 AD, identifying orchids as 'fragrant plants', a feature which many of the Oriental species strongly show. Formal cultivation of the Oriental cymbidium species (primarily Cym. ensifolium and Cym. pumilum) dates from 354 AD when it is recorded that the first orchid pavilion was established to enable the nobility to enjoy these plants. Their cultivation has become increasingly popular over the ensuing centuries.

In 1233 the first treatise on orchids was published, which listed 22 orchids and gave cultural details. Joan Matsuoka, in 1728 summarised orchid culture as follows

In spring don't put then out-of-doors

In summer don't expose to too much sun

In autumn don't deep then too dry

In winter don't keep them too wet

These recommendations fit in with modern cultural methods.

The involvement of cymbidiums in the orient for so long has meant that they ave become favourite subjects for both literature and art. It is worth noting that in Oriental countries it is not so much the flowers which are important, but rather the appearance of the plant overall, especially the foliage, and their fragrance.

Europe has no native cymbidium species. The first Oriental cymbidium was recorded has having been introduced by James Fothergill into England in 1778, this being the species ensifolium from China. The first systematic description and classification of the genus we know as cymbidium occurred when Olaf Swartz established the genus in 1800. He included three Asiatic species as well as a number of other plants in error. Other botanists such as Lindley and Reichenbach reviewed its nomenclature and extent, with in 1883 Bentham finally limiting to the aggregation of plants we generally know today. By this time a number of the Himalayan species had also become available in Europe.


Site established 9th May 1998