Cymbidium goeringii, a cold hardy terrestrial orchid from east Asia

Japan is home to potentially the most cold hardy of all Cymbidium orchids, C. goeringii.  This remarkable plant lives further north than any other member of the genus, even up to southern Hokkaido (Okushiri Island, 42 degrees north latitude), where it endures below freezing temperatures from late fall through early spring.  An added bonus is the amazing fragrance of its long lasting flowers.

Cymbidium goeringii in habitat
Cymbidium goeringii often grows in rocky woods in a very thin layer of humus – almost to the point you could call them lithophytic.

Cymbidium goeringii is an evergreen orchid with below ground pseudobulbs and long, grass-like leaves.  The pseudobulbs are round and flattened somewhat, growing at tight intervals along the thick rhizome.  The roots are many, thick, fleshy and white, and up to a half meter long.  The leaves number 4-5 per growth, each being 12-40 cm long and about 1 cm wide.  In early fall flower shoots form at the base of that season’s growth.  They are thickest at the middle and come to point;  3-4 cm long and about 1 cm wide.  This shoot remains in stasis until late March or early April when it begins to grow into a thick flower stalk to a height of 12-25 cm. It is graced with a single flower (very rarely two), and covered by a number of alternating white to green sheaths.  The flower is 4-5 cm across.

The sepals and petals are bright emerald green with purple striations and sometimes blotching.  The dorsal sepal always bends forward over the lip, but the lower sepals either are cupped forward as well, or they flare out laterally, looking like wings.  The petals are always cupped forward and very tightly cover the column. The lip is white overall with purple blotches and is also yellow at its point of attachment.  It is strongly recurved back to the point of making contact with its base on the underside of the flower.  The ovary is purple-pink in color and covered by a large pinkish-white sheath.  If pollinated, the seed pod grows vertically rather than staying in the same position as the flower, and grows to a remarkable size.  Plants can remain as single growths for years or sometimes become large clumps numbering 15 or more flowering stems.

Cymbidium goeringii flowers
Typical flowers of Cymbidium goeringii are green with a white lip.

This species is found throughout Japan from Kyushu to southern Hokkaido (Okushiri Island) as well as Korea and China.  Chinese plants can be quite different looking and multi-flowered (e.g., v. longibracteatum).  It is found in an array of habitats, from moist woodlands, conifer plantations, to pine forests on seaside sand dunes. The preferred habitat seems to be on extremely steep rocky slopes that are almost vertical. In these places in can grow as a near lithophyte on the thin humus over bedrock. Found from sea-level to ~800 meters on Kyushu.

Cymbidium goeringii seed pods
The seed pod of Cymbidium goeringii stands erect. They take almost a year to fully mature and split.

This lovely little Cymbidium is a true miniature species.  Thankfully, it is still a common plant, sometimes forming colonies with dozens of individuals. Its flower shape and color is highly variable, ranging from the normal green to true yellows, oranges, reds, purple striated forms, and even pure white ones.  Because of this, the plant has been collected for many years and hundreds of clones have been named and cultivated.  The local wild plants however are much more uniform in color and shape. The flowers are intensely scented with a sweet smell.  Supposedly Chinese plants are more fragrant than Japanese ones, though in my experience they all are strongly scented.

Along with Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata, this species is the most wide ranging in habitat selection in the local woods.  It is often seen on extreme slopes in rocky woods, but I’ve also seen it growing happily in bamboo groves, conifer plantations, steep road embankments, and on the tops of tall sand dunes in pine forest overlooking the sea.  In this last habitat the plant reaches its largest size. I know of one specimen that has 20 or more lead growths and perhaps 100 growths in total.  I think they like this environment due to the perfect drainage that 50 meters of sand can provide!  One interesting aspect of this plant is that its above ground mass is equal to the below ground mass.  In otherwords this species has a huge root system. Although many people list these as “psuedobulb epiphytes”, I’ve never seen them growing in trees, or for that matter, even on rocks. The roots and pseudobulbs are always underground or at the very least in thick humus, thus I would call it a true terrestrial orchid.

Check out this video of me searching for this orchid in the mountains around my township, Sasaguri, Kyushu, Japan:

Cymbidium goeringii flower bud
Small shoots form at the base of the new growth in the early fall. These will form into flower stalks in the spring.

The Japanese name is shunran, simply meaning “spring orchid”.  Indeed, it does bloom in spring, anywhere from early April through May.  C. kanran in the same vein is named kanran, meaning “cold orchid” because it most commonly flowers in November-January during cold weather.  Sometimes Japanese plant names can be ridiculously straightforward, and sometimes maddeningly obscure.

Happily, this is a fairly easy species to grow if you have warm summers.  It is funny to me that some people consider it and its cousin C. kanran to be cool to cold growers.  They are the farthest thing possible from that.  They do need a cool off in winter to go into an appropriate dormancy, but both thrive in hot summer temperatures.  When I think I’m about to die from the August heat, I take a look at my shunran collection and it is at its peak performance, growing like mad.  I’ve been told that people have trouble growing this one in climates where summer temperatures are cool.  No doubt that here in southern Japan they get only hot temperatures from July to early September (above 30 C daily).  So goes the “cool to cold growing” myth!

Cymbidium goeringii luna moth
I was lucky enough to find a luna moth on a flower one May day.

So, what does it need?  The following:  a perfectly draining medium, bright shade, a very deep pot, cool winters, and warm summers.  About the growing mix first – you don’t need to use much organic material at all, just fertilize regularly while in growth.  I grow mine in inorganic substrates only, such as pumice or kanuma.  Addition of a little bark or humus is fine if the drainage remains perfect.  Use a deep pot.  The root system grows mainly downward, not laterally, so pots need to be deep.  These plants have remarkably large root systems.  Here in Japan plants are grown in special pots that are very narrow, but extremely deep, for example, only 15 cm in diameter, but 30 cm high.  This insures lots of room for the aggressive root stock.  Under-potting is best since this does tend to make the plants flower more.

Regarding fertilizer and water – in the late summer stop fertilizing and dry them out a bit too.  The reason is simple, if you keep feeding and watering them they will grow wonderfully, but won’t set flower buds.  In Japan there is a pronounced summer monsoon, but this is followed by a drier, hotter period in August and early September.  During this time flower shoots are produced just off that season’s new growths.  These will persist throughout the winter months and expand into flower stalks in the spring.  As one grower told me, “in late summer be mean to your shunran, don’t baby them, think torture.”  While I don’t torture mine, I do dry them out more and stop feeding.  This works like a charm.

Cymbidium goeringii flowers up close
A very nice wild form of Cymbidium goeringii, head on and in profile.

The next important point is temperature.  These are temperate plants and require a cool down in winter.  Here in Fukuoka they are subject to temperatures between -8 C (18 F) and 10 C (50 F) during the winter months with the average being around 5 C (41 F).  I would give them no less than three months of temperatures below 15 C (59 F) starting in December, and colder is OK. However, the summer temperatures should be warm, averaging above 20C (68 F) from late May to early October.  From late spring through mid-summer give them lots of water and fertilize regularly. They can withstand sun, but prefer bright shade to grow and flower well, at least in warm climates.  In cooler climates I would plant them in a protected spot, say a south facing wall or against a large boulder.  They should do well in UDSA cold hardiness zones 9a-7 without protection, and even colder if protected in winter.

All in all, it is a pretty easy plant to grow and bloom.  While I wouldn’t call it exactly a showy species, it is a nice addition to the woodland garden.  I’d grow it for the smell alone.  Highly colored forms, in particular yellow, orange, and red ones, exist and are coveted, especially in Japan and Korea.  I will handle these in a separate article since they have some requirements that differ from the wild forms.

Cymbidium goeringii cultivated
Cultivated plants of Cymbidium goeringii can grow into large clumps with over a dozen flowering stems.


20 Replies to “Cymbidium goeringii, a cold hardy terrestrial orchid from east Asia”

  1. Hey David,

    In my opinion the typical green forms found in Japan and Korea (like those pictured above) are the most likely cold hardy candidates. I’ve heard of folks growing them into USDA zone 7 (Long Island, NY), but I’m not sure that they flower well. A critical issue is that the flower buds have to endure the winter. It probably would be beneficial to protect them with a light mulch and a simple overhead covering, but light should be allowed in. Temperatures below -10 C will be a challenge to them.

    I’m not sure about Chinese plants however. They are found in the warm temperate to subtropical regions of that country. I do know that Taiwanese plants seem more cold sensitive.

  2. The plants (all 1 clone) I have planted in 3 locations in my yard all overwintered with no protection except evergreen boughs to deter rabbit and deer browsing. Though we faced very intense storms this past winter with high winds, and more snow storms than usual, plants have remained evergreen, no burning of leaves, and I have flower buds forming. I will pollinate the plants to get seed which will hopefully carry the genes for hardiness.

  3. Chilmark, MA on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I am trying to find other clones that might be hardy to use to increase the genetic base of the offspring. Any ideas of sources? Most everything I find online are for the fancy color forms, pelorics or variegates, usually Chinese in origin.

  4. Michael…Yes, the one clone was from Arrowhead Alpines. Last summer, I purchased 6 different clones from Japan. All, including the AA clones, were replanted in a new location in Provincetown, MA at the tip of Cape Cod. It is still considered USDA 7A, but it is much more exposed to winds and weather. Some appeared to have survived, and I’ll see how things go this year. I have also just purchased a Chinese clone this year. The problem is, usually the fancy clones are the ones offered online, and the sellers usually have no idea of hardiness. I try to express that my consideration is cold hardiness foremost. I’m not as concerned with rare colors or form. I want to breed for cold hardiness, and select from there. I’m not sure how to find a source for “average” plants from cold climates.

  5. Hello Tommy,

    thank you for the information.
    is the local wild plant’s color is only green or can it sometimes be yellows, oranges, reds, purple striated ?
    is the color of the Cymbidium kanran green only? does Cymbidium kanran lives also in the wild in Japan?
    does the Cymbidium goeringii lives in China?

    As you probably know, the wild orchid is considerd to be one of the four gentelmen in China, Korea, Japan and are painted together. which of the two mentioned orchids got the titel ‘gentelmen’?

    and last question: do you know a flower named in japanese ‘chinese orchid’? as i know it is other species than the cold orchid.


    1. Hi Orian,

      All the local C. goeringii are green because the colored forms were all collected by people years ago. Sometimes I hear about a plant that was collected that was yellow, orange or red. C. kanran can be many colors, from green to brown, purple or multicolored. C. kanran does exist in the wild still, but has become very rare from over-collection. C. goeringii does indeed live in China as well as Korea, and I think Taiwan as well.

      Since the four gentlemen are plum (winter), orchid (spring), bamboo (summer), and chrysanthemum (fall), I’d say the species of orchid would be C. goeringii, shunran, the “spring orchid”. I’m not sure what orchid you mean by “Chinese orchid”, sorry. In Japan we have C. dayanum, C. ensifolium, C. goeringii, C. javanicum v. aspidistrifolium, C. kanran, C. koran, C. lancifolium, C. macrorhizon, C. nipponicum, and C. sinense. Perhaps the one you mean is C. ensifolium or C. sinense?

      I hope that helps.


  6. Thank you for this in depth information on Cym. goeringii. Are any cultivars/clones available that are consistantly fragrant? There seems to be confusion with pseudonyms for goeringii. Is Cym.virescens a more fragrant subspecies? I have read in the book “Fragrant Orchids”(1) that Cym. virescens earned the moniker as “the scent of the king” but could find no other references. Is this actually Cym goeringii wild type or is there a clone/subspecies that I should search for?

    1. Frowine, Steven. Fragrant Orchids” (page 167), 2005, Timber Press

    1. Hi John,

      Answering your question is a bit difficult. C. goeringii is a very widespread species with great variation in phenotypes. This includes the plant itself and especially the flowers. I’ve often heard that Chinese plants are all fragrant, while Japanese ones have little or no fragrance. I’ve found that to be untrue. C. goeringii lives all over the hillsides near my house in Japan and I can tell you they are quite fragrant flowers. I recommend trying to get ahold of a few different clones and you are bound to get one that has very fragrant flowers. If your experience is anything like mine, I think you be pleased with how they all smell. My two cents!


  7. HI.
    I live in Australia and would love to get some C.goeringii. However the only way that I know I could get some back would be in flask still. I am headed to Korea and Japan in Dec 2017 or Jan/Feb 2018 so I am looking to find a a lab or breeders or nursery that would sell them in a flask with export papers. Would you have any idea of where I might be able to look or who to contact?

  8. Hi
    I have a couple of Cymbidium goeringii plants and need your expert advise.
    I have taken your advise and hold back watering in late summer to stimulate flower growth.
    My problem is that the flower buds die after they growth to about an inch long?
    I am in the Seattle Washington area. I grow they indoor. Try it outdoor and it was too wet in the Seattle area.
    Any Advise will be appreciated.
    Dan Wang

    1. Dan,

      Not sure why they are dying. They should be fully grown by around October, right around the time things cool off. They will remain about an inch long throughout the winter months, and then around March/April will begin to grow into flower spikes. Times may be a bit different in your area due to the colder climate.

      One idea – you may be keeping them too dry? Watering should be liberal through June and July and then they should be kept just moist in September and October. The rest of the winter water enough to keep them moist. Good luck! Tom

  9. Tom San,
    Could it be too warm? I have to grow them indoor. Outdoor is too wet in winter even the temperature is good for them. My indoor temperature in winter is about 63-64 at night and 68 deg F in day time. One of the plant have flower bud came out around April to about an inch but did not flower neither. Very disappointed.

    1. Hey Daniel,

      Do you know where your plants originated? I’ve only grown Japanese plants, so I can’t comment on clones from China. Some forms may not be as cold resistant. I do know one person who failed with this species in Victoria, B.C., so it may the cooler spring temperatures that is blasting the buds.

      IMO this species is a warm to hot growing subtropical plant that enjoys a cool winter rest. So, why not try them inside as see how they do? I think they should do much better. BTW, they get quite a bit of rain in winter here as well.

      Let me know how it works out for you! Tom

  10. Hallo Botanyboy, Great Website! I ˋm working on opening a little
    nursery for some rare plants ( especially rare here in Germany) – think it will take another two years to get it all ready.
    Well , I ´m searching for someone to export plants like forms of
    C. goeringii and japanese ferns to Germany. Including an health certificate for the plants. Without certificate plants can not be imported. Would be nice to hear from you.

    1. Try contacting Shikoku Gardens in Matsuyama City. If you are willing to make a large order, he will do the paperwork. Most other nurseries here don’t want to bother with the trouble. Good luck!

Leave a Reply to Tom Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *