Cymbidium orchids, like most of their brethren, are complex hybrids derived from six or so species native to tropical areas on the south slope of the Himalayas in Nepal and India and from southern China. Most grow in humus-rich soil on steep, well-drained slopes instead of as epiphytes, which naturally nestle on tree branches.

Cymbidium houseplant

Cymbidium orchids make attractive houseplants.

Photo Credit: Dr. Gerald L. Klingaman

These pretty orchids have evergreen, strap-shaped foliage arising from swollen pseudobulbs growing at the soil surface. Leaves are usually about 2 feet long with a plant form reminiscent of that of a daylily. Most hybrids bloom in late winter or spring, but some are now available with blooms through most of summer and fall, extending our enjoyment. Upright spikes are capable of reaching 3 feet tall, but miniature forms are also available.

The five-tepaled blooms of Cymbidium orchids are 2-3 inches wide with a prominent mouthlike lip often colored differently than the surrounding tepals. Some hybrids are fragrant. (The one pictured isn’t.) Flowers usually have a greenish or brownish undertone mixed with white, beige, yellow or red. Blooms are long-lasting and remain attractive for a month or more.

The Cymbidium orchid has been cultivated in China for more than 2,500 years. In Confucius’ day, the plants were associated with people of high social standing. In fact, according to one Confucian saying, “The association with a superior person is like entering a hall of chih-lan [fragrant orchids].” In modern China, the orchid is a symbol of virtue and morality. Particular favorites have been the autumn orchid (Cymbidium ensifolium) and the spring orchid (Cymbidium goeringii). Cymbidiums have also long been a favorite of Chinese artists.

The first wave of hybrid Cymbidiums relied on Cymbidium insigne, Cymbidium lowianum, Cymbidium eburneum and Cymbidium tracyanum from India and Nepal, but later hybrids included those from China and the Philippines. Thousands of hybrids have since been produced. The long-lasting flowers make Cymbidium orchids popular for use as potted specimens and as cutflowers.

From a horticultural standpoint, big box store garden shops have been responsible for reintroducing the buying public to orchids. Their volume approach makes it feasible to offer a wide array of fairly pricy orchids that had almost disappeared from commerce, being relegated to a few specialty growers and mail-order sources. For that, I say thanks.