#66 Orchid/ Orchis


Orchid/ Orchis


Orchids at Kew, Syd Cross 2001


Comprising eight-hundred genera and nearly 18,000 species, the Orchidaceae is among the most varied and far-ranging of flower families (Ward 275), appearing on every continent but Antarctica. They are divided into two major kinds: terrestrial, growing from bulbous tubers in the earth, and epiphytic, growing in the air, usually from tree branches. The fifty-two orchids native to England and Europe, members of the genus Orchis, are largely terrestrial, while the epiphytes, encompassing genera such as Cattleya, Dendrobium, and Phalaenopsis are more exotic, imported from Asia and the New World beginning in the sixteenth century and only widely grown in Britain after the invention of greenhouses and cast-iron steam pipes in the mid-nineteenth century.


The most common British orchids are among the thirty-five species of deciduous marsh orchids in the genus Dactylorhzia (previously included under Orchis), which are native to Europe, parts of Asia, and North America; described by Hogan as “orchids of the grasslands,” they are “frequently found growing in moist situations in bogs and drainage patterns” and “in slightly alkaline soils derived from limestone”(465). Most have green leaves “heavily spotted with maroon,” and emerge from two tubers, some rounded and some finger-shaped (Hogan 465). Perhaps the most common of these in Britain is Orchis mascula, renamed Dactylorhiza fuchsia, also referred to as the “early purple” and sometimes called the “Gesthemene orchid” because its purple spots “suggest the passion” (Ward 275).  Described in 1846 by Pratt as resembling a hyacinth in both form and color (146), these bloom in early spring in both Cornwall and Sussex.



            Other common British orchids include “Ladies tresses,” Spiranthus autumalis, which blooms in autumn in a characteristic white spiral resembling the braids often worn by Elizabethan women, who gave them their name.[1] In his compendium of Wildflowers in [British] Literature, Rendall remarks that this flower was noted by White of Selbourne and that he himself had “noticed it on the links of Carbis Bay in Cornwall” (333).


Joan E. Rahn  https://www.britannica.com/plant/ladies-tresses


A few other British orchids have a magical quality of mimicry: the bee orchid and the fly orchid, have, in Pratt’s words, the “singular curiosity of the appearance of an insect resting on the stem” (146).  In 1862, following the publication of his Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote an entire small book on the Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects in which he explored the various means of “pseudocopulation” by which native orchids apparently had evolved to mimic their pollinators.

https://www.britannica.com/plant/Ophrys  Bernd Haynold 


Orchids have long been associated with sexuality.  The very name, orchis, is Greek for testicles and refers to the fact that many terrestrial European species grow from a pair of rounded bulbs that look very like the male organs.  As Jim Endersby points out in his comprehensive Orchid: A Cultural History, the Greek plantsman Theophrastus recorded a folk legend about the aphrodisiacal qualities of eating the tubers in his Enquiry into Plants, so that “from very first mention of orchids in Western writing orchids were linked to sex” (12). There is also a popular pseudo-classical origin myth about the orchid, the story of Orchis, the son of a lustful satyr and a sensuous nymph, who was so promiscuous he dared to caress one of the priestesses of Bacchus and was subsequently pulled to pieces and then turned into a flower for his troubles by the gods. But this is, according to Endersby, actually the invention of an eighteenth-century French writer, Louis Liger, who made up a series of “spurious myths, usually pastiches of classical ones” for his 1704 gardening book (60).[2]


The infrequent literary allusions to native British orchids are, however, mostly associated with death rather than sexuality. The two contexts are linked in the locus classicus of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia’s suicidal garland contains some flowers generally thought to be native orchids:

There were fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them
(Act 4, scene 7, ll. 169-73)

 There seems to be general agreement that the “long purples” with a “grosser name” are meant to refer to the early spotted orchid, Orchis mascula, a.k.a Dactylorhiza fuchsia, often called “dead men’s fingers” because of the palmate shape of its tubers (Ward 276; Rendall 334). In a learned note disputing their possible identification with a more obviously phallic variety of Arum, Charlotte Otten argues that Ophelia’s flowers are orchids in part because there is such a long “lewd botanico-medical history” of orchids appearing in “copulatory contexts”(397). Her list of popular British names for orchids include “Dogges coddes, Priest pintel [penis], Hares Balloxe. . . and Goates Cullions” not to mention several variations on “Satyrion,” apparently derived from the French fake legend that Orchis was the son of a satyr (398).


                Other poetical British allusions to native orchids place them more firmly in the tradition of the pastoral elegy.  In his early “Dirge” of 1830, Tennyson mentions “long purples” as blowing round the green grave of the departed-- a possible reference to Shakespeare. In the eighty-third canto of In Memorium (1849), he invokes the purple “orchis” as well as “foxglove spire” amongst a group of other spring flowers meant to console for a long winter after the loss of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Matthew Arnold also mentions “orchis” -- a term for native orchids favored for poetical use -- in similar pastoral contexts.  In Arnold’s tale of the Oxford don who retreated to a chosen pastoral exile, “The Scholar Gipsy” (1853), the wandering shepherd gives the country maidens “purple orchises with spotted leaves” among other spring flowers (St. 9).  And the plant is also evoked in “Thyrsis” (1865), Arnold’s pastoral elegy on the death of his friend, Arthur Hugh Clough, linked to “Our friend, the Gipsy-Scholar” (stanza 3), whose disappearance from the hills is threatened like the “High tower'd. . . spikes of purple orchises,” which used to be seen in valleys now ploughed for farmland (Stanza 12).  In all these verses, the purple flowers are presented as traditional pastoral emblems of mourning, similar to lilacs. (See my entry on LILACS)


The more exotic, tropical orchids which began arriving in Europe with the exploration of the New World in the sixteenth century and the expansion of trade routes into the Far East contributed a whole new range of erotic and deathly associations, very far from these traditional connotations. The extreme rarity of exotic orchids, coupled with the major expense initially required to house them in steam-heated glasshouses such as those at Kew meant that they were at first, in Endersby’s words, “expensive trophies for wealthy collectors,” and later became “effete exotics, pointless luxuries that aptly symbolize the idle rich” (3). As Endersby also points out, vanilla was among the earliest of tropical orchids to reach Europe and, when combined with chocolate, also discovered by Cortez, the exotic flavors were “assumed to be aphrodisiacs” (59). In contradistinction to the association of native orchids with masculine virility, tropical exotics were often “depicted as feminine and delicate,” while the adventurous masculine collectors were presented as “larger-than-life male heroes,” who were “the only ones who can bring them home safely” (Endersby 3).    


Increasingly, aided by Darwin’s account of their sexual disguises and the initial assumption that epiphytic orchids were parasitic (Endersby 70), literary orchids began to take on a certain quality of danger beyond the difficulties of finding, importing, and raising them. In The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) Oscar Wilde repeatedly associates orchids with the sinister Sir Henry Wotton. A “yellow book” that Sir Henry lends Dorian is written in a “curious jeweled Symbolist” style full of “metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour” (104). Later Sir Henry refers to the orchid in his own buttonhole as being “a marvellous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins” (161). An efflorescence of stories about carnivorous orchids began in 1895, with H.G. Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” about Mr. Winter-Wedderburn, who nearly dies in his greenhouse, attacked under mysterious circumstances by a carnivorous orchid whose tentacles are wrapped around his neck, sucking his blood. Endersby documents more than a dozen such stories featuring vampyric orchids produced in the early years of the twentieth century, including John Collier’s Green Thoughts, published in 1932, in which an orchid eats its owner, Mr. Mannering, whose head emerges as a flower on plant’s stem,-- a tale that may have inspired Little Shop of Horrors (145). As Endersby points out, one of the striking similarities of these stories is that the dangerous, man-eating flowers “were not just cunning cruel, and sexy, they were also conspicuously female,” and so orchids became associated with the swarm of sexually predatory women known as “vamps” or vampires appearing in pulp fiction around the turn of the century (158), coincidental with the rise in agitation for the vote and women’s access to the professions. Thus, triggered by scientific studies of their cross-species evolutionary adaptations to attract insects into mating with them as a pollination strategy, orchids became a convenient metaphor for fears of sexual ambiguity and even loss of humanity aroused by women’s entrance into public and professional life, and their gender identification shifted from male to female. 


In the thirty-seven times Woolf mentions orchids in her writing, she largely rejects these popular associations of orchids with femininity, apparently aware of the ways in which orchids were demonized as a strategy to further misogyny. The greater majority of her orchids -- thirty -- are the exotic, imported, hothouse-grown variety; only seven times does she mention native orchids. Woolf’s first mention of orchids invokes their standard association with money and gentility; in a letter of October 1915, she announces her intention to crash one of Lady Robert Cecil’s receptions and “hide behind the vast pyramids of orchids and peaches” (L2 66). She shows her awareness of native orchid varieties in September of 1917 when she notes in her dairy of activities at Asham that she and Leonard found “Lady’s Tresses” on the Downs (D1 49). In her early work, however, orchids appear primarily in the orchid houses at Kew, in contexts which suggest a rather uneasy ambivalence about their exotic appearance.

Woolf records her own encounter with orchids at Kew in a diary entry of November 29 1917 describing an excursion down the hill from Hogarth House: “We also went into the orchid house where these sinister reptiles live in a tropical heat, so that they come out in all their spotted & streaked flesh even now in the cold.  They always make me anxious to bring them into a novel” (D1 82).Clearly attuned to contemporary trends, her description animates the “sinister” flowers as reptiles with spotted flesh, nearly able to move in the comparative warmth of the hot house. Her desire to bring them into a novel is immediately satisfied in Night and Day, which she was writing at the time, for an important scene between Katherine and Ralph containing six references to the flower is set in the Orchid Houses.

           The history of orchids at Kew has some important political implications which are key to understanding their appearance in Woolf’s second novel. Kew had long been an important center of orchid collection and growth. Having some of the first and largest greenhouses in England and serving as the imperial plant library, Kew already had at least fifteen species under cultivation as early as 1794 (Endersby 67).Some lean-to houses were built just for orchids in 1843, two more were added in 1846, another in 1869, and they were reconstructed in 1898 (Desmond 366, 368, 371).


Orchid houses at Kew, 1912

                 On Saturday, February 8, 1913, Kew Gardens joined a list of public places targeted for suffragist publicity.  That night, several orchid houses were broken into, glass was smashed, and a number of plants were destroyed. This rated banner headlines in The Daily Express -- “Mad women raid Kew Gardens” -- and drew heated rhetoric from the Gardener’s Magazine: “ An attack on plants is as cold and cruel as one upon domestic animals or those in captivity” (both quoted by Desmond 306). In less frantic tones, the Times presented an even more provocative analogy: “It is said that in one of the houses was found a piece of paper saying that orchids could be destroyed, but not woman’s honor,” evidence suggesting that some feminists saw the flowers as symbols of male power to collect and display the feminine (“Attack” 8).

          Although the latter part of Night and Day is set a year before this attack,[3] Ralph Denham’s reaction to Katharine’s appearance among the exotic blooms seems to anticipate some of the feminist critique of their display status. After an episode by the side of the Lake in which Ralph’s knowledge about some “green spikes” beginning to show among the leaves reveals him to be a botanist who like Darwin is able to see plants as “living things endowed with sex, and pores, and susceptibilities which adapted themselves by all manner of ingenious devices to live and beget life” (330), he and Katherine wander over to the Orchid Houses. Here, in a scene strongly reminiscent of Woolf’s earlier diary entry, Ralph sees Katharine “among the orchids, her beauty strangely emphasized by the fantastic plants, which seemed to peer and gape at her from striped hoods and fleshy throats” (331). For a moment he loses his scientific detachment: “his ardor for botany waned, and a more complex feeling replaced it” (331). Watching Katharine’s unconscious contemplation of the orchids, however, he does not slip into his romantic dreams, but instead is able to see her as a being separate from himself: “She needed nothing that he could give her” (332) This is an important turning point in their relationship: by not seeing Katharine as a flower he resists sexual objectification, endowing her with her own living autonomy.

                As if to match Ralph’s disinterestedness, Katharine almost immediately suffers a bout of “absent-mindedness” in which she realizes that she has lost her purse, and the two retrace their steps in order to find it where it is resting on the bench by the Lake. This episode represents an interesting variation on conventional associations with orchids. Given the Freudian associations of purses with vaginal openings, the loss of Katharine’s purse is an ironic re-codification of orchids with the feminine. Woolf herself first identified the hot-house plants as being somewhat masculine, calling them “sinister reptiles” and remarking on their “spotted and streaked flesh” as if they were snakes (D1 82).  But in her novel, their anatomy becomes feminine as the plants “peer and gape at her from striped hoods and fleshy throats” (331). Ralph’s refusal to identify Katharine as a flower is coincident with her losing an aspect of her femininity, her bag.But the result is moment of more real intimacy when Katharine empties out her purse’s contents to make sure nothing is missing, and Ralph gets a glimpse of the material reality of her inner life (333). The final result of this sequence is for the couple to “lay down terms for a friendship which should be perfectly sincere and perfectly straightforward (337); Ralph’s abjuration of the orchids lays the groundwork for their full recognition of each other.


                   Two other references to orchids in works published in 1919 show that the flowers were much on Woolf’s mind at the time. They appear as a brief signal of the imaginative exotic in the short story “Kew Gardens” where Trissie, the named half of the last and youngest of the couples walking among the flower beds, is led towards the tea pavilion, remembering “orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson crested bird.”[4] In a September 1919 review of a new book by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Woolf similarly associates orchids with (perhaps over-heated) imaginative invention, saying that Wilcox “had within her the power to transform everything to an object of beauty. The buttercups and daisies of the field looked to her like rare orchids and hothouse roses” (E3 98).

                 Subsequent references to orchids in Woolf’s work fall into three basic and fairly unambiguous categories: exotic orchids which are first linked with women of privilege and later with pouchy old men, and native orchids sighted in England and Greece which seem to carry little or no sexual over-determination. In the 1922 short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” orchids are clearly markers of excess. Clarissa judgmentally observes a woman on Oxford Street trying too hard to impress: “The fat lady had taken every sort of trouble, but diamonds! orchids! At this hour of the morning! No! No! No!” (CSF 155) In the novel which bears her name, orchids are not associated with Clarissa Dalloway herself -- her husband Richard choses to buy her roses rather than orchids (11) -- but with her aged Aunt Helena, who, like the famous botanist and painter Marianne North, once travelled to the ends of the earth to find the rare blooms. Her memories of “mountain passes and herself carried on the backs of coolies in the ‘sixties” and of uprooting orchids, “(startling blossoms never beheld before) which she painted in water-colour,” reek of imperial privilege as they also subtly invert the usual narrative in which it is heroic men who go in search of these exotic beauties (MD 174). In addition, Aunt Helena has actually studied orchids in a scientific way; she had written a “little book on the orchids of Burma,” on which Darwin had commented and which “went into three editions before 1870” (MD 175).  Considering that Darwin’s book was only published in 1862, Aunt Helena was quite on the cutting edge of orchid research, even if she is presented rather sardonically as a tiresome old woman lost in the past.

                 Published the same year as Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s essay on Lady Dorothy Nevill in The Common Reader reveals another possible antecedent for Aunt Helena. Along with growing silkworms, among other eccentricities, Lady Dorothy also cultivated orchids, and although she neither travelled nor wrote a book on them, she too, like Aunt Helena, “got into touch with ‘the great naturalist’” (E4 202). Woolf’s essay, however, makes fun of Nevill’s approach to the great Darwin, telling a confusing story of Mrs. Darwin thinking Lady Nevill needed to be tossed in a blanket during her visit, and trivializing her orchid growing as one in a series of “charming diversions” (E4 203).

                    In the 1930’s, Woolf switches the gender identification of orchids, briefly associating orchids with wealthy and ponderous old men given to excess. In Flush (1933), the spaniel’s amorous adventures in Italy are described as a succession of floral encounters: “Today the flower is a rose, tomorrow a lily; now it is the wild thistle on the moor, now the pouched and pretentious orchid of the conservatory” (119). Although this orchid is not particularly masculine --except insofar as women are not usually described as having pouches -- that same year, while traveling in Italy and reading Henry James’ bizarre novel of erotic speculation, The Sacred Font, Woolf does metaphorically align orchids with the pretentious (and rather pouched) author: “I ask how could anyone, outside an orchis in a greenhouse, fabricate such an orchid’s dream!” (D4 157)[5]  Both these references retain the somewhat sinister Wildean connotations of orchids as sexual emblems.

                Later, in The Years (1937), orchids again appear linked to a male figure. Elaborating the story of her search for a job including a visit to the office of a newspaperman in the City, a “stout man with red cheeks” who has on his table “three orchids in a vase” (324), Sara concocts a rather hyperbolic fantasy for her cousin North as a distraction from the sordid sounds of the Jew taking his bath in the room next door.  The man with the orchids -- which Sara imagines were given to him by his wife, in another gender switch -- has a “flunkey in peach-blossom [checked] trousers,” and the corridors leading to his mahogany door are “piled with purple”; Sara’s letter of introduction is “a talisman, a glowing gem, a lucent emerald” (324). It is not clear if the orchids are also figments of her imagination, but since she thinks of the man as a “master” and sees getting a job under him as joining a “conspiracy” that will stain her hands, they certainly carry a slightly sinister overtone of extravagance (323).[6]

                 In the middle of these linkages of orchids with florid old men, towards the end of 1934, Woolf herself was the recipient of what she saw as an extravagant gift of the blossoms from Victoria O’Campo, an Argentinian writer, editor, and publisher. The day after Aldous Huxley introduced them on November 26, O’Campo sent Woolf a bunch of orchids, which Woolf compared to “gorgeous purple butterflies” and exoticized by exclaiming, “this is what a garden in South America looks like!” (L5 348) Protesting against the extravagance while simultaneously bragging about the flowers caused Woolf to mention them in her diary and letters five more times in the space of a month. She recorded their arrival in her dairy the day she received them, jammed into the midst of recounting an unpleasant display of Vanessa’s maternal favoritism towards Julian: “No, it was not a nice evening; & she is lonely without Roger. And the S. American Okampo sent me orchids. I dislike many of my feelings. Most of all I hate the hush & mystery of motherhood” (D4 264). The enjambment amongst such negative feelings foreshadows Woolf’s growing unease with the gift.

             A week later, with a slightly snobbish desire to impress, Woolf tells Hugh Walpole about seeing “the Baroness Okampo,” whom she describes as “the Sibyl Colefax of Argentina,” characterizing her as an aristocratic socialite, “a generous woman who sheds orchids as easily as buttercups” (L4 350).[7] Two days later, December 7th, O’Campo evidentially sent Woolf another floral tribute, but this additional gift of roses struck Woolf as excessive for she writes back, “No this is too much” and asks her aristocratic friend, “Please don’t do it again. . . hereafter let me go ungiven,” mentioning that O’Campo has now given her both orchids and roses (L5 351).  The roses and orchids continue to be on Woolf’s mind towards the end of the month when, after the exchange of  three more letters, she assures O’Campo that she has not forgotten “you: or your orchids and roses” (L5 358). Despite her evident unease at the “lavishness and splendor” of O’Campo’s gifts (L5 352), in a letter written to Vita Sackville-West the same day, Woolf tries to arouse Vita’s jealousy by mentioning, I have had to stop Victoria Okampo from sending me orchids. I opened the letter to say this, in the hope of annoying you”  (L4 359). Here exotic orchids are given woman to woman, but carry with them an aura of slightly competitive aristocracy.

                 The native orchids scattered occasionally throughout Woolf’s writing are reclusive and carry none of the gender or class pretentions of the hothouse variety. Instead they display a bit of the elegiac aura typical of their British literary heritage.  The first of these local wildflowers is mentioned in Jacob’s Room where Mrs. Flanders shows her youngest son, Johnny, that one of the leaves he has collected has the “little brown spots” of an orchid, probably Orchis mascula, the “early purple” native to Cornwall if not Scarborough (JR 17).  One does not know if Woolf was aware that the flower was also called “Gesthemene orchid,” but the proleptic reference to the crucifixion would be in line with the mourning functions of other purple flowers in the novel.

                 Twice native orchids appear not in England but in Greece. The first of these is another elegiac reference. In Mrs Dalloway, when Septimus Smith is hallucinating in Regent’s Park, he imagines that he hears Evans, his commanding officer killed in the war, singing that “The dead were in Thessaly. . . among the orchids” (MD 68). This association of the dead soldiers with the native orchids of a region of Greece where the battle between the old Titans and the new Olympians was fought seems like a classical analogue to the Christian orchid reference in Jacob. In May of 1932, Woolf herself found orchids in Greece; after a day exploring the Byzantium church at Hymettus, a mountainous region north of Athens (close enough to now be a suburb), she records watching the Frys painting while gathering “a handful of wild anemones & orchids”(D4 93).

                 Wild orchids also grow in British landscapes close to Woolf’s home in Sussex.  In The Waves (1931), Susan, anticipating coming into her own as a woman, takes an ecstatic early morning walk through the marshes where the “swans ride the streams,” gathering “white-domed mushrooms” and a “purple orchid” (TW 72). I have seen swans riding the streams in the marshes around Rodmell, and thus imagine that Susan’s country home is redolent of Monk’s House memories.

Swans in Rodmell marshes, March 2001, Photo by Syd Cross

                Woolf’s last mention of orchids is another evocation of the plants in the peaceful context of a local landscape. At the beginning of her last novel, Between the Acts, Woolf describes a stretch of high ground above Pointz Hall that recalls the terrace rising above the hollow in which Monk’s House also sits. Great trees cast their shadows across the elevated expanse, as did the two elm trees which Virginia and Leonard named after themselves. In the gaps between the trees grow purple wildflowers, in a setting something like a natural graveyard: “Their roots broke the turf, and among those bones were green waterfalls and cushions of grass in which violets grew in spring or in summer the wild purple orchis” (BTA 8).  Restored to their native habitat, divested of the complicated and contradictory political gendering of their exotic relatives, the orchids resume the ancient name of orchis, redolent of British pastorals.  It is an ironic coda that, after Woolf’s death, Leonard buried her ashes in the roots of the great elms

[1] A historical detail noted by Mark Griffiths in his delightfully informative article, “The tale of Britain’s 52 native orchids, and the ‘maverick miscellany of amateur and professional naturalists, painters and writers’ who champion them.” Country Life June 20, 2020.

https://www.countrylife.co.uk/gardens/the-tale-of-britains-52-native-orchids-and-the-maverick-miscellany-of-amateur-and-professional-naturalists-painters-and-writers-who-champion-them-216239 (Accessed Nov. 22, 2020)

[2] I found this story quoted by both Ward (276) and Folkard (246), neither of whom bothered to check any classical sources, including Ovid, the usual origin of such tales of transformation.

[3] In his Introduction to the Cambridge Edition, Michael Whitworth suggests that “Chapters 20 to 34 are set in the first months of 1912” (xc). 

[4] There is an odd elision of time here.  The refreshment pavilion was also destroyed by the suffragists in 1913 and not rebuilt until 1920 (Desmond 336, 337), so it did not exist at Kew at the time the story was written.

[5] This is one of two times that Woolf uses the term “orchis” and, contrary to general usage, here it refers to a hothouse variety. I suspect she was merely trying not to be repetitive and uses it here as an interchangeable synonym.

[6] Rex Stout published his first novel about the enormously fat American detective Nero Wolfe, who refused to leave his house with its immense collection of orchids on the top floor conservatory, in 1934. However, I can find no evidence that Wolfe read Stout.

[7] Woolf would recount the history of her relationship with Sibyl Colfax two years later in her speech to the Memoir Club, “Am I a Snob?” (MOB 210-20). Like O’Campo, Colefax sometimes overwhelmed Woolf with her somewhat importuning demands.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...