With more than 22,000 known species (and roughly 800 more discovered each year), the orchid is the largest family of flowering plants. It is a cosmopolitan flower, capable of growing nearly anywhere, from deserts to glaciers. However, this elegant flower is most commonly found in tropical regions, such as Central and South America as well as throughout Asia.
Because there are so many varieties of orchids, you’ll notice many different features when looking at pictures of orchids. Still, some common traits emerge, including bilateral symmetry and, most obviously, the presence of a single modified petal, called the “labellum.” Apart from that, orchids can take on any number of appearances, including bright purple, red, orange, white with lavender touches, or mottled colorations that resemble flames or brushstrokes. Some orchid flowers feature the evolutionary perk of being shaped like the insects that pollinate them. Since there are thousands of unique varieties, orchids are hungrily collected and cultivated by enthusiasts around the globe. Of course, orchids are also used in many cultures for practical purposes—not just admiring their delicate beauty. For instance, orchids are used to produce vanilla, scents for perfume, and, in Turkey, flavoring for ice cream and a hot traditional beverage called “salep.”
But it is the orchid’s fragile beauty and exotic allure that have made the flower a popular gift, as a potted plant and as fresh, cut flowers. What do orchids mean, when given as a gift? These flowers carry many meanings, but the strongest associations are love, beauty, wealth, and strength. A quick look at the cultural history of the flower explains why. The ancient Greeks saw the orchid as an emblem of virility, while the flower became known as a signifier of social clout and opulence in Victorian England. And from the ancient Aztecs up to modern China, cultures valued the orchid for its medicinal purposes, viewing it as a restorative and healing entity. Taken together, one can see how the orchid has accrued its meanings: It is a rare, elegant, and cherished not only for its beauty, but also as a symbol of strength and prosperity. As such, the gift of an orchid is an appropriate gift for all occasions.