Orchids, Culture & Markets: A brief history of China's wild Cymbidium trade
Southwest China's Sichuan Province ranks among the world's most botanically-diverse regions, with ~10,000 species of higher plants (one-third of China's total), including hundreds of endemic species. Sichuan hosts high orchid diversity especially in terrestrial taxa from genera such as Anoectochilus, Bletilla, Calanthe, Cypripedium, Galearis, Gastrodia, Hemipilia, Liparis, Oreorchis, Pleione, and Cymbidium--a genus that has a unique place in Chinese culture for their ornamental and medicinal values.
This blog shares insights from two recent studies on Chinese culture and orchids (Seyler et al. 2019, 2020). Between 2013 and 2015, we interviewed more than 200 individuals involved in the collection and trade of Cymbidium orchids from multiple jurisdictions across Sichuan. Although traditional Chinese culture has long influenced the collection and trade of ornamental Cymbidium orchids, recent commercial overharvest illustrates a shift from cultural to economic motivations, which has resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge and cultural valuation of these plants. Both studies highlight the impacts of commercial valuation on orchids and the negative effect biodiversity decline has on culture, suggesting that ongoing access to plants is important for cultural maintenance and intergenerational knowledge transmission.
In China, the high cultural veneration of the genus Cymbidium, collectively referred to as "orchid culture" and expressed through poetic metaphors, musical compositions, and material culture, is credited to have begun with Confucius's own sayings. Widespread cultivation of Cymbidium in China dates to at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and traditional "orchid culture" became so significant that other countries historically influenced by Han Chinese culture (e.g. Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) also revere Cymbidium today. Despite this long-standing tradition of wild orchid harvest and cultivation, interviewees explained that as late as the 1960s and 1970s, large sweeps of wild Cymbidium abounded in the mountains and valleys throughout Sichuan. Individual colonies were largely undisturbed, having breadths of dining tables. Local people recalled times the intoxicating fragrance of Cymbidium perfumed the air for miles.
Figure 1. Wild-collected named-varieties of Cymbidium kanran Makino or 夏寒兰 (xià hánlán) in Chinese. a. ‘绿鹦鹉’ (Lǜ yīngwǔ); b. ‘素蝶’ (Sù dié); c. ‘黄鹤’ (Huáng hè). Photo credits: Changhai Meng (孟昌海).
Figure 2. A wild-collected named-variety of Cymbidium cyperifolium var. szechuanicum (Y.S.Wu & S.C.Chen) S.C.Chen & Z.J.Liu or 送春兰 (sòng chūnlán) in Chinese, ‘春娇’ (Chūn jiāo). Photo credit: Changhai Meng (孟昌海).
Figure 3. A wild-collected natural variety of Cymbidium nanulum Y.S.Wu & S.C.Chen or 珍珠兰 (zhēnzhū lán) in Chinese, ‘红花’ (Hóng huā). Photo credit: Changhai Meng (孟昌海).
Beginning in the 1980s, the economic reforms that opened China to the world also created new access for Cymbidium collectors from Korea, Japan, and the Chinese diaspora. This began an international boom in price-speculation, which peaked around 1996. Local orchid-appreciation societies were established across China to harness the broader public's growing interest in Cymbidium. Following the Asian Economic Crisis (1997), wild-collected Cymbidium prices declined, reaching their lowest values in 2002 and allowing wild populations to partially recover. However, the price-speculation started by international collectors had already accelerated China's domestic demand for wild-collected Cymbidium, especially in wealthier coastal cities. By 2005-2006, there was widespread awareness across China, driven by media coverage, that particularly beautiful, unusual, wild-collected natural Cymbidium mutations could sell for hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
Figure 4. Wild-collected named-varieties of Cymbidium tortisepalum Fukuy. or莲瓣兰 (liánbàn lán) in Chinese. During the height of price-speculation, these varieties sold for hundreds of thousands of US dollars. a. ‘金沙牡丹’ (Jīnshā mǔdān); b. ‘一品桃红’ (Yīpǐn táohóng); c. ‘笑荷’ (Xiào hé); d. ‘金沙树菊’ (Jīnshā shùjú). Photo credits: Changhai Meng (孟昌海).
At each stage of the market chain, people became wealthy, which further fueled overharvest. At domestic market peak (2006-2008), the personal orchid collection of one of our interviewees was valued at >¥80 million RMB (~US$13 million). This was described as a “gold rush” period when, throughout Sichuan, hundreds of people in each rural village were visiting the forests daily to collect wild Cymbidium. They would then plant the orchids into their farm plots, intending to let them grow larger for subsequent sale—by the kilogram—to orchid traders who often speculated on the price. However, interviewees explained how harvesters really hoped to find a particularly unique natural mutation that could make them rich overnight. The speculators had developed skill to perceive natural mutations (e.g., peloric flowers or unusually shaped or colored leaves) simply by looking at small, immature plants. Alongside especially rare and valuable Cymbidium taxa, even common species were indiscriminately collected with hopes of discovering valuable oddities. This drove steep population declines and local extinctions of even formerly common, commercially less-valuable taxa. Although most never found expensive specimens, many villagers nonetheless made tens of thousands of dollars selling Cymbidium to urban speculators. The price of Cymbidium peaked in 2007.
Recognizing the rapid declines in China’s wild orchid populations and in support of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, in 2008 the Chinese government began strictly enforcing an export ban on wild orchids. Through our interviews, we found this had an unexpectedly negative impact, as this caused Cymbidium prices to plummet overnight. Due to the importance of cash crops to rural farmers, the price drop drove many small-scale orchid collectors to abandon the orchid trade, and tens of thousands of Cymbidium collections were plowed under or discarded. This devastated wild-collected germplasm stock across Sichuan. Improved alternative economic opportunities have since reduced many rural residents’ reliance on wild-collected resources such as orchids. Nevertheless, we found multiple villages across the province still maintained household Cymbidium collections. Although for many people harvest was initially driven by economic value, many respondents also developed a sense of loyalty and interest in these plants. Some explained that they loved Cymbidium and could never discard them, viewing them like family, explaining they had prospered by occasionally selling a few specimens to speculators.
Figure 5. Formerly Cymbidium colonies across Sichuan were as wide as dinner tables, but now the few extant specimens that can be found are very small (Huili County). Photo credit: BCS.
As late as 2013, we documented orchid shops in major urban areas across Sichuan that exclusively sold Cymbidium, most of which were wild-collected. At that time, most orchid merchants, hobbyists, and collectors insisted only wild-collected Cymbidium had value. However, by 2015, we documented a dramatic shift in the market, with nearly all shops moving away from selling wild plants and towards greenhouse produced orchids in many genera. China’s growing urban, younger middle-class were increasingly willing to buy tissue-cultured Cymbidium, hybrids, and even tropical genera not previously popularly cultivated in China. Many local orchid-appreciation societies had also formed online groups on social-networking platforms such as QQ and WeChat, where they now trade Cymbidium and share their orchid appreciation. These market changes have lessened wild harvest pressures. Although many Cymbidium species and populations had already been largely extirpated from the wild, with remaining populations largely unable to naturally recover, the ongoing maintenance of wild-collected germplasm by local farmers who remember their provenance may serve as valuable stock for future reintroduction efforts.
Figure 6. Private Cymbidium collections across Sichuan continue to maintain wide diversity of wild-sourced germplasm, with knowledge of their provenance. Here several examples of C. kanran are in flower. Photo credits: BCS.
The history of the Cymbidium trade in Sichuan highlights the complex relationships between traditional cultural associations with nature and contemporary global markets for wild resources. It reveals how economic development affects people's understanding and actions, and how these shifted over time and across different communities in China and internationally. The findings highlight that conserving endangered species requires greater understanding of not only economic drivers but also traditional cultural associations with these species. In particular, there is considerable scope for China’s traditional cultural veneration of Cymbidium to serve as a key example of biocultural conservation.
Seyler, Barnabas C, Orou G Gaoue, Ya Tang, and David C Duffy. 2019. “Understanding Knowledge Threatened by Declining Wild Orchid Populations in an Urbanizing China (Sichuan).” Environmental Conservation 46: 318–25. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892919000171.
Seyler, Barnabas C, Orou G Gaoue, Ya Tang, David C Duffy, and Ercong Aba. 2020. “Collapse of Orchid Populations Altered Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Valuation in Sichuan, China.” Anthropocene 29: 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2020.100236.