Orchids are woven through Chinese culture. What happens if they vanish?

Unfurling across paintings, poems and carvings, Cymbidium orchids are more than just wild plants in China. They are inextricably linked with the country’s culture. But this rich blooming of human response to orchids that has endured for millennia is fragile, and as Cymbidium orchids increasingly vanish from the wild so too do the words and knowledge that humans have about them.

Every year the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the New York Botanical Garden open their doors to thousands of visitors who flock to their orchid shows. Easily grown and long-lasting orchids such as generic Phalaenopsis form the bulk of these temporary displays. But behind the scenes these institutions engage in longer-term work to conserve not just living plants but also records of the culture attached to them.

Kanran orchid, Cymbidium kanran Makino. Handcoloured woodblock print by Kono Bairei from Kusa Bana Hyakushu (One Hundred Varieties of Flowers), Tokyo, Yamada, 1901.

Kew’s Spirit Collection contains ghostly flowers of Cymbidium kanran; their colour washed out but their three-dimensional shape preserved by immersion in a mixture of alcohol, glycerol, and water. In collaboration with the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Beijing, Kew has also developed a collection of plants – including orchids – in the forms they are used in traditional Chinese medicine – chopped, dried, fried and so on. Indexed with scientific botanical names, this collection is a repository of knowledge and a reference tool for authenticating botanical ingredients.

Dr Barnabas Seyler, assistant researcher in the department of environment at Sichuan University, looked at the relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity by examining changes in knowledge of Cymbidium orchids in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Sichuan.

“As an ethnobotanist, I find all facets of biocultural diversity to be fascinating,” says Seyler.

“Many people, particularly in the west, but also in rapidly changing, urbanising, and modernising China do not fully appreciate the magnitude of symbolism and pride that Cymbidium have held throughout history in traditional Han Chinese culture,” he says.

“Symbolism, metaphors, and poetry associated with Cymbidium are credited to have begun with Confucius’s own sayings and infuse traditional Confucian thought today. If you walk into any Chinese restaurant around the world, or into any tea parlour or salon in China, you will likely find paintings, furniture, place settings, or other material culture items depicting Cymbidium orchids.”

Orchids, like other wild species, are vulnerable to the impact of climate change and habitat loss. But Cymbidium species native to Sichuan studied by Seyler have an additional vulnerability – their beauty. Between 2005-2008, when Cymbidium prices were at their peak, wild-collected rare forms could be sold for six-figure sums. In 2006 one was bought for 4.6m Chinese yuan (GBP511,000).

Orchid specimens from the Spirit Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Interviewing individuals in predominantly Yi and Han communities, Seyler and his colleagues assessed whether people could identify different Cymbidium species. Additionally, they asked about local ecological knowledge: how to find, harvest and grow orchids, as well as orchid business knowledge, and awareness of orchids in arts, academia and idiomatic expressions.

In all categories of knowledge, they found that when species were locally extinct, knowledge about them had declined, except among individuals involved in their trade.

Seyler believes that botanical gardens contribute much towards conserving biocultural diversity, “through ex-situ collections, for example collecting and showcasing plants like Cymbidium, advocating for their conservation, and educating the general public, and documenting traditional knowledge, stories, and cultural traditions associated with these plants”.

In the US, New York Botanical Garden is a designated plant rescue centre. When the US Fish and Wildlife Service finds shipments of orchids that lack the paperwork to prove they were either cultivated or sustainably collected from the wild, they are sent to a plant rescue centre. If the country of export does not request their return within 30 days, they are incorporated into the institution’s collection, but remain US government property.

Orchid Festival 2020 in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

“Botanical gardens, properly functioning, serve as local drivers of economic development, education capacity building, and as mechanisms for community cohesion, showcasing the unique beauty and value of a region’s biocultural diversity to visitors,” says Seyler.

Han Chinese culture won’t collapse if Cymbidium orchids become extinct in the wild in China. Culture doesn’t entirely disappear because of the loss of one plant or group of plants. But what happens if species loss continues?

Seyler believes botanical gardens are playing a vital role in keeping the culture alive. “They can help to address some of the educational, social, and economic challenges that contribute to the unsustainable overharvest of biodiversity,” he says.

o The orchid festival at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, runs until 8 March. The orchid show at the New York Botanical Gardens is open until 19 April.

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