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The genus Cymbidium (the boat orchids) includes approximately 52 species of sympodial, pseudobulbous, herbaceous orchids. They are native to the Old World and were first described by Olof Swartz in 1799. The name is derived from the Greek word kumbos, meaning "hole" or "cavity", a reference to the hollow boat-shaped lip.
The vigorous plants are variously epiphytic, terrestrial, or lithophytic and occur as far north as the Korean Peninsula, with species found in Japan, China, India, the Himalayas (including Bhutan and Assam) and through Southeast Asia and Indonesia to Australia. They are easily recognizable by their ovoid pseudobulbs and basal inforescences. Many species bear spectacular flowers.
The thousands of hybrid cymbidiums are among the most popular cultivated orchids due to their adaptability, cold tolerance, and spectacular flowers in a wide array of colors. Cymbidiums have replaced the cattleya as the most popular cut flower orchid for corsages and arrangements, making them of great commercial and economic importance.
Most of the large-flowered hybrids are derived from cool to cold growing species from the Himalayas and require cool winter night time temperatures (in the 40's F) in order to bloom. Inability to supply cool temperatures to the plants is the main reason for blooming failures with these hybrids.
Some of the smaller cymbidiums from China Japan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia were collected and grown by Chinese scholars for many centuries and were likely the first cultivated orchids. Often prized more for their foliage than for the flowers, various variegated forms were selected and meticulously cultivated by these scholars.
Referred to as "Lan" in Chinese, these orchids were considered to be emblematic of the scholarly and virtuous man. Poetry and paintings depicting these revered orchids can be found in ancient literature and artwork. The gift of such an orchid was considered a supreme compliment and is still considered so today.
The five best known species cultivated in China are C. ensifolium, C. kanran, C. goeringii, C. sinense, and C. faberi.