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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Drawing of a botanical specimen

“An orchid in a deep forest sends out its fragrance even if no one is around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character hold firm to their high principles, undeterred by poverty.”

– Confucius (551–479 BC)



Portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo, with orchids in planter (right, front)

Portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo, with orchids in planter (right, front) probably by Mangguri (1672–1736). China, Qing dynasty, 1731 Purchase—Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1991.95

Orchids have been a part of Chinese culture for many centuries, permeating Chinese history, legends, literature, and art. Since ancient times, orchids have been celebrated in China for their beauty and fragrance, and appreciated as symbols of nobility, friendship, and refinement.

The orchid displays in this exhibit are interpretations of these themes. Enter and explore reflections of this enchanting plant through Chinese culture, from ancient times to the present day.

Orchids in Chinese Art and Culture

This reverence for orchids expresses itself in many ways, from the contemplation of a single plant to an enthusiasm for color, new forms, and mass display. Age-old traditions have evolved into the extravagances of the contemporary Asian orchid world.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius compared the virtuous man to an orchid. Echoing this thought, Chinese artists sometimes placed orchids in their work to evoke the Confucian qualities of humility, integrity, refinement—in fact, all the virtues of a perfectly cultured gentleman and scholar.

Orchids in Chinese Medicine

Bletilla striata, Photo © Dr. William Mathis Photo

Bletilla striata
Photo © Dr. William Mathis Photo

In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is a small universe containing an array of opposing forces—yin/yang, cold/warm, passive/active, and more. Medicines, often including plants and herbs, balance those oppositional forces. Orchids are essential ingredients in many Chinese medicines that are still used today.

The oldest Chinese pharmaceutical text, Shen Nong’s Materia Medica [Shen Nong bencao jing], lists 364 plant, animal, and mineral substances and their medicinal properties. It includes orchids such as various Bletilla and Dendrobium species.

Orchid Extravaganza

Cultivated orchid varieties in a Taiwan nursery. Photo © Tom Mirenda.

Cultivated orchid varieties in a Taiwan nursery. Photo © Tom Mirenda.

Today, the world of orchids is one of color and excitement. Orchid cultivation has become an international industry in which China and many other parts of Asia compete. Orchids that originated in all parts of the world are now grown in mass quantities in Asia.

Leading the way is Taiwan, which is unrivaled in Phalaenopsis orchid cultivation and marketing. By making these blooms at once more extravagant and more available, Taiwan’s orchid breeders have changed the way people around the world see orchids. The annual Taiwan International Orchid Show is an eye-dazzling spectacle of horticultural showmanship.

Creating the Orchids Exhibition

Smithsonian Gardens and Office of Exhibits Central staff installing the 2009 Orchids Exhibition. Photo by Angela Roberts, Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Gardens and Office of Exhibits Central staff installing the 2009 Orchids Exhibition. Photo by Angela Roberts, Smithsonian Institution.

For the last 17 years, the Smithsonian Gardens and the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) have cooperated to present the annual orchid exhibition. The two institutions share plants and resources, and alternate planning and hosting the exhibit.

The Smithsonian Gardens curates a diverse collection of close to 9,000 live orchid plants, many of which will be displayed in Orchids: A View from the East.

This exhibition is presented by the Smithsonian Gardens, United States Botanic Garden, Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central and Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, and National Museum of Natural History. Special thanks to the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Postal Museum and the U.S. National Arboretum for their assistance and generosity.

Upcoming Related Events



Vote for Best in Show

Tom Mirenda of Smithsonian Gardens talks about some criteria for judging orchids

Join the competition!

Watch this video and learn how experts judge orchids at botanical shows around the world. Then cast your vote online for the best orchid in the exhibition.

You can vote on different orchids every few weeks, so check back often. Visitors to the museum exhibit can also text their votes from the exhibit using their mobile phones.



Related Exhibition

Tom Mirenda of Smithsonian Gardens talks about some criteria for judging orchids

Visit The Orchid in Chinese Painting, now exhibiting at the Smithsonian Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.



Timelapse Video

Timelapse video of the Orchids exhibit installation.

View a timelapse video of the installation of the Orchids exhibition.

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