Plant Encyclopedia

Japanese Orchids


Much of traditional Japanese culture originates from its nearby neighbor China. This includes the structuring of society itself, and the various arts and cultural traditions that have been practiced through the centuries. While many of these traditions are less influential today, nevertheless they have left a heavy impression on modern Japanese life. With the increasing influence of Chinese culture on Japan starting around the 1st century A.D., many new ideas and practices entered and became incorporated into Japanese culture.  One such Chinese tradition is the growing of plants in pots, dating back before the time of Christ - a remarkable thing in and of itself.

Japan is famous for taking something foreign and making it Japanese. Perhaps no other group of plants exemplifies that better than bonsai, but the growing of certain orchids has been impressive in its own right. Perhaps the most famous of the cultivated Japanese orchids are fuukiran, but others exist as well, and enjoy broad popularity today. Many command a high price, though not all, and have highly fragrant flowers.

While a wide variety of native orchids are grown in Japan today, several groups have more influence and history than others. In the beginning, plants such as fuukiran and shunran were kept only by the most powerful and wealthy, however in last 50 years they have been grown by just about anyone up to the challenge. Here is a rundown of the "heavy hitters":

Fuukiran - these special cultivars of Neofinetia falcata have been grown since the middle Edo Period (around 300 years ago). They were first collected from the wild by feudal lords and their servants to be gifted to the top ruler (the Shogun) to gain political favor. This practice expanded through the years and during the empire phase of Japan in the early 20th century they became more popular. After WWII fuukiran were even more broadly grown. Today they have become a modest sized industry in Japan, Korea, and China, and growers around the world now enjoy them.  Please see the category Neofinetia falcata for information on these.

Shunran -The truly dwarf Cymbidium species, C. goeringii, is a native of Japan, Korea, and China, and exhibits a wide range of flower forms and colors. While the focus is mostly on their flowers, leaf habit and variegation is also important in some varieties. These specially selected forms are known as shunran, which means "spring orchid". There are hundreds of forms today, some well known, others obscure.

Kanran - The winter flowering Cymbidium kanran (meaning "cold orchid") is much larger than its relative C. goeringii, but offers its flowers at a time of year when most plants are dormant. The flowers vary in color and shape, but in general are much more spidery looking and the plants are quite tall, up to a meter while in flower. The pots they grow in are tall as well, giving large specimens a very stately look. "Elegant" would be the word that comes to mind for these, but not "showy".

Chouseiran - The native Dendrobium moniliforme, the most northern growing epiphytic orchid in the world, as well has great natural variation. The special forms are known as chouseiran ("long life orchid") and number at least into the hundreds. Variation includes flower color and form, pseudobulb color and form, leaf shape and variegation, and overall stature. While some forms may indeed be the result of hybridization, most are the real thing. Luckily, many chouseiran are more affordable than other Japanese orchids.

Ebine - These are the species and hybrids of the genus Calanthe native to Japan. The name ebine literally means "shrimp root" since the close set pseudobulbs strung along a subterranean rhizome gave someone the impression of that crustacean. In the past plants were collected directly from the wild and were primarily hybrids of C. discolor, C. sieboldii, C. tricarinata, and C. izu-insularis. Since the 1980s with the dawn of micro-propagation of terrestrial orchids, lab grown plants have come to rule the scene. With ebine breeders making increasingly complex hybrids, well defined hybrid types have become more blurred - much like the situation with complex Paphiopedilum hybrids.

Of course many more native orchids are popularly grown in Japan today. Most of those I will include under the category Orchid Plants.