Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Most Disreputable Flower

Who doesn’t love orchids?  Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by the beauty of these flowers, especially the ones we most often cultivate for gifts, corsages, and wedding bouquets.  For example, the fabled cattleya orchid blossom has graced many a feminine wrist or bodice.

These days, it wouldn’t occur to us to think of a flower as indecent, but in Victorian times, people were concerned about nudity in zoo animals, and turkey breast was renamed “white meat.”  Back then, orchids were not only the most beautiful blossoms but also the most indecent.  There are several good reasons for that.

For one thing, orchid blooms don’t flop around like rose petals.  Desirable flowers are best described as "fleshy" or "turgid."  In other words, they’re thick.  They unfold and stand proudly erect for the pleasure of the observer.

When talking about orchids, we often use terms of mixed sexual identity, with feminine and masculine aspects.  But then, orchids are “perfect” flowers, which means they have both male and female sexual organs.  Oh, my!  If that won’t send a lady to a fainting couch, her stays haven’t been pulled tightly enough.  Both of those organs appear on the most scandalous part of all of the blossom - the column.

The column is a protuberance toward the center of the bloom.  At the end, it’s covered with an anther cap, behind which the pollen sits in little packets that can be accurately described as “nubs” or “nubbins.”  Lower on the column lies the female part of the flower that’s receptive to fertilization when pollen is placed against it.  (Is it getting hot in here yet?)

To make matters worse, the column is only one of two traits that distinguish the orchid from other kinds of blossoms.  The second is the lip.  I ask many flowers have lips?  Orchid lips are often frilly and feminine.  Sometimes you could call them florid.  Definitely dramatic, rather erotic, and absolutely disreputable.

Top all this off with the fact that many orchid plants, like the cattelya, grow as fleshy structures called pseudobulbs.  Even the roots are thick and turgid and have the tendency of wandering anywhere they want, often to land in other plant’s pots.  What a shocking creature all around.

So, picture a Victorian gentleman and lady strolling through the orchid gardens at Kew, surrounded by these exotic flowers.  Imagine the gentleman explaining orchid anatomy to the lady.  Or for more fun, imagine her explaining it all to him.

My book, Miss Foster’s Folly, makes every good use of the sexiness of orchids, you can be sure.


Reina said...

I know it does, Alice! Love that scene... Thanks for sharing your knowledge. ;)Happy 2011!

Alice Gaines said...

Thanks, Reina. I have some follow-up information on orchids to post. Plus, my next book also involves orchids. I love the little monsters. :-)

Wendy Soliman said...

My goodness, Alice, how, er, remarkable. Very interesting post. I can just imagine the outwardly respectable Victorians getting quite hot and flustered.

I'm with my sister, who's a florist. Must ask her if she knew all this.

Taryn Kincaid said...

Geez, I wonder what the Victorians would have made of the passion flower or the bird of paradise!
(But the idea of indecent flowers absolutely tickles me.) Great post, Alice.

Patricia Preston said...

I had no idea orchids had all "those" parts! Very entertaining. And, they are beautiful flowers.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Those bad but beautiful orchids.

Rebecca Rogers Maher said...

Even at my age and in our jaded culture, it still gives me a chuckle to see a Georgia O'Keefe print in the gynecologist's office. I can't imagine the energetic blushing brought on by a real-life orchid in Victorian times.