A Rare and Exquisite National Symbol
Everyone loves orchids! Originating 60 million years ago in the temperate zones of Asia and the Americas, orchids have the widest range of flowers and color of any plant family. Guatemala is home to one of the largest varieties of orchids in the world with hundreds of species growing throughout the country.
With independence from Spain (1821) celebrated this month, itâ€™s a good time to discuss one of Guatemalaâ€™s national symbols, the national flowerâ€”Lycaste Skinneri Albaâ€” more commonly known as the Monja Blanca (White Nun).
In 1933 Mrs. Letitia Southerland, president of the international flower show held in Miami Beach, Florida, wrote a letter to Guatemalan President Jorge Ubico to thank him for sending a beautiful group of native orchids. Noting that Guatemala did not have a national flower, she asked that he consider the exquisite Monja Blanca. Following her suggestion President Ubico declared it the national flower of Guatemala in 1934.
References to orchids are found throughout many cultures dating back to the Greeks, who attributed healing and aphrodisiac qualities to them. They were also studied by Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (374-287 BC), a pupil of Aristotle.
One legend has it that Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr, during some festivities, got drunk and committed the sin of making love to a priestess, punishable by death by the gods. After he begged the gods to be spared, they agreed on the condition that later in life Orchis provide satisfaction to men. He was transformed into an orchid and the ancient Greeks attributed erotic powers of the deceased Orchis to these flowers.
In the first century, Neroâ€™s surgeon, Dioscorides, in Materia Medica, associated similar properties to orchids. For centuries it was believed that by eating orchids one could influence the unborn child to be male. It is certainly not clear that Guatemalaâ€™s White Nun might have these attributes!
The Chinese cultivated some species of orchids more than 1,500 year ago. Orchids, a symbol of perfection, sparked interest with its lovely fragrance. Confucius (551-479 BC) referred to orchids as â€œthe queen of fragrant plants.â€
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, considered orchids as the food of Satan that drove men to excesses. Orchids are mentioned in the treatise Bock Tragus Hieronynus and in the book by the Jesuit Athanasius Kirchen in 1665.
We found few records about orchids in Mayan references. In pre-Columbian Mexico, orchids were cultivated at least since the Aztec reign of Itzcoatl (1427-1440). They also appear as a payment of taxes during the reign of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (1440-1482).
We look forward to learning more about orchids vis-Ã -vis the Maya, who date back to before 3,000 BC. While pending more Mayan/Guatemalan historical references to our national flower, the Monja Blanca is a rare and exquisite national symbol.