Scented Orchids : A Kaleidoscope of Perfume

Andy wrote this article a couple of years ago after his visit to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and I kept looking for a chance to share it with you. Now in the middle of grey winter days, an invitation to contemplate scented orchids seems particularly welcome.

What does an orchid really smell like? In the world of perfumery, the answer is fairly limited—orchid is usually portrayed using a note that is spicy, exotic, and floral like Tom Ford Black Orchid or Jo Malone Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, often accented by woodsy, powdery, or vanillic nuances. In reality, though, orchids possess far too wide a range of scents to be classified using any of these descriptions. Orchids are a particularly diverse class of plants, found on every continent, except Antarctica, growing in rainforests, deserts, and marshes, on mountains, valleys, and plains, and taking root in just about every type of climate imaginable.

Orchids are highly adapted to their environments, which is reflected in the fact that most species of orchids have co-adapted with their pollinators to exhibit flowers that are shaped, colored, and scented to attract a specific species of insect or bird. This explains why an orchid species like Orphrys exaltata, which is pollinated by male bees, carries a sweet scent that mimics female bee pheromones, and why an orchid species like Bulbophyllum graveolens, which is pollinated by carrion flies, smells like rotting meat. Fortunately for human noses, though, most cultivated orchids smell pleasant, with odors that span the range of fruity, floral, and all other notes in between.

Stepping into a greenhouse filled with orchids, the first thing that hits you is the scent. Even before you catch a first glimpse of the showy jewel-toned blossoms, the sweet, musky perfume of hundreds of flowering orchids gathered together is potent and unforgettable. At my favorite orchid shop, I love coming in from the icy chill of December to the tropical warmth of a glasshouse filled with rows upon rows of flamboyantly scented and colored blossoms. Longwood Gardens, a botanical garden in Pennsylvania, holds their annual Orchid Extravaganza from mid January to early March in their extensive conservatory. The multitude of topiaries and sculptures constructed out of thousands of phalaenopsis orchid plants offers a bright splash of color at one of the bleaker points of the year.

On a recent trip I made to Longwood Gardens, I had the pleasure of experiencing their gorgeous orchids at both day and night, which allowed me to appreciate the fragrances of all of the orchids in their rotating collection. Just as orchids have adapted how they smell to attract a specific pollinator, orchids also have adapted when they release their fragrance for the same purpose: orchids that attract pollinators that are active at night release their scent during the night, and orchids that attract pollinators that are active during the day release their scent in the day. Generally, orchids that feature especially strong, diffusive floral odors are pollinated by moths and are scented at night, while orchids that feature sweet or fruity scents are pollinated by bees and are day-scented.

This explains why the orchids I smelled at Longwood Gardens during the daytime exhibited a myriad of sweet, fruity scents. “Sweet, ambrosial nectar” and “lemon soda pop” were just two of the impressions of day-scented orchids that I wrote down in my notebook. Later, I revisited the orchid room and found that, as evening fell, the room smelled ambiguously musky and peppery, a vague myriad of the fading fragrance of day-scented orchids mixed with the amplifying fragrance of night-scented orchids. Once darkness fell, though, and I stopped for a last visit, I noticed that the orchids that had been strongly scented during the day were devoid of all scent, and those that had shown no scent during daylight were strongly scented at night. Strong floral, spicy scents dominated, making for an unforgettable last impression as I left the conservatory for the evening.

Your Own Orchid Garden

Luckily, even if you don’t have a local botanical garden to visit, many fabulously scented orchids can be grown at home in average conditions without a lot of fuss or special care. In fact, contrary to popular belief, most orchids are not finicky and do not require hot, humid conditions to thrive. As long as they receive enough light (an east or south-facing window is usually sufficient), water (not too much), and good air circulation, most orchids will be perfectly happy in your home. As a hobby orchid grower without a greenhouse, I primarily look for orchids that are visually beautiful and easy to grow, but scent is also a must when I purchase. Fortunately for windowsill orchid enthusiasts like myself, there are many easy to grow orchids that are both fragrant and pretty.

Looking at the name alone, it is clear that Oncidium Twinkle ‘Fragrance Fantasy’ is an obvious choice for the scent-obsessed orchid grower, and I can attest that it is a small dynamo of scent. Only fragrant during the day, the very popular ‘Fragrance Fantasy’ has a beautiful candy sweet, powdery-musky odor that lingers nicely in the air around the small, pale yellow-flowered plants. Another popular Oncidium orchid for beginners is Oncidium Sharry Baby, which often blooms twice a year, each time bearing lovely burgundy and white blooms that smell like musky chocolate. Smelling equally delicious are the honey-scented blossoms of Dendrobium nobile, whose white-flowered plants are common and fairly easy to grow.

Another delectably scented, exceptionally easy to grow option is Maxillaria tenuifolia, whose gorgeous crimson flowers emit a strong, ripe coconut scent. Degarmoara Winter Wonderland ‘White Fairy’ comes from a genus that has been bred to be easy for beginners, and boasts striking white flowers that smell evocatively of ripe bananas. For the beginning grower seeking some less gourmand scents, Brassavola nodosa is a prolific, easy to grow orchid with elegant green and white flowers that offer an especially diffusive fragrance. The complex, addictive scent is redolent of creamy, spicy, citrusy ylang-ylang. Another favorite of mine is Neostylis Lou Sneary ‘Bluebird,’ whose small blue-violet and white blossoms carry a gorgeous jasmine-tuberose scent that is especially exotic. Cattleya Chocolate Drop, despite the name, has gorgeous glossy red flowers that easily fill a room with its characteristic strong jasmine-like fragrance.

All of these orchids are fairly easy to grow, and if you are interested in growing any of them, I recommend reading books before diving into the hobby. I like to shop at specialty orchid shops, as the staff at these retailers is very knowledgeable. They can point you towards the most fragrant and easy to grow orchids for your home, and can also tell you exactly how to care for the orchids you purchase. Whether or not you wish to grow your own orchids, though, one thing is for certain: the world of scented orchids is a diverse one, far more varied and interesting than any so-called “orchid” scent you’ll ever find in a bottle.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin: Dendrobium and Paphiopedilum orchid varieties

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33 Comments

  • Matty: Thank you for this very informative piece. The pics are glorious. February 15, 2019 at 9:41am Reply

    • Andy: If you are a fragrance lover, I can’t highly enough recommend a visit to a specialty grower; the array of remarkable scents that fill the air is utterly dazzling and uplifting. February 15, 2019 at 10:09am Reply

  • Gabriela: Wonderful article, I had no idea about orchids releasing different scents duuring the day and night.. I will definitely seek some out. February 15, 2019 at 9:51am Reply

    • Andy: That orchids are often day- or night-scented is an exciting aspect of growing these plants. I have even found that my night-scented plants won’t release their scent fully until all the lights are off and they are immersed in full darkness. February 15, 2019 at 10:13am Reply

      • Gabriela: That is pure poetry… can’t wait to have a night orchid! February 15, 2019 at 2:34pm Reply

  • Julie K: Brassavola nodosa is a night-bloomer, hence it’s common name, “Lady of the Night”. Truly spectacular. February 15, 2019 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Andy: Brassavola nodosa is one of my favorites! Olympic Orchids had a perfume inspired by one of the B. nodosa hybrids, called Little Stars. February 16, 2019 at 10:31am Reply

  • Vanessa: Such an interesting informative article. I have never thought about orchids being scented & such a spectrum of odours. February 15, 2019 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Andy: If you ever have a chance to visit a specialty orchid grower or botanical garden with a collection of orchids, take some time to smell the flowers. The variety of scents can be a real surprise, and sometimes the plants that are the most fragrant are the ones you’d least expect to be. February 16, 2019 at 10:56am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Thank you for this! I grow some orchids, but mostly for holiday decor. Our local botanical garden has a beautiful orchid house, so I get my fix there! February 16, 2019 at 7:46am Reply

    • Andy: Since the visit I wrote about here, my local botanical garden in Pennsylvania has greatly expanded its orchid collection. It is always an inspiration! February 16, 2019 at 11:12am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hello Andy, really enjoyed the article. It reminded me of when I visited the Hortus Botanicus in the university of Leiden in the Netherlands. A fantastic botanical garden with beautiful greenhouses with Amazonian Lilies among its many treasures. It has one of the largest collections of Asian orchids in the world. I spent a fascinating couple of hours there. Given your knowledge and love of orchids, I imagine you would love it. Maybe you have already visited? Highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Netherlands.

    Are there any perfumes inspired by orchids? February 16, 2019 at 3:21pm Reply

    • Andy: Hortus Botanicus in Leiden looks spectacular. I always try to see gardens when I travel, so it’s a welcome recommendation.

      An American brand, Olympic Orchids, has a number of interesting perfumes inspired by specific orchids. They are creative and definitely capture something of the raw beauty of the plants. February 17, 2019 at 3:46pm Reply

  • Jodee: Hi Andy,
    Fascinating article. Do your orchids ever drop their flowers and stop producing? I would love to try growing orchids, but it always seems that when I buy a plant, after about 4 weeeks the flowers fall, the leaves remain green and nothing else transpires. No new growth and no more flowers, but the plant does not look dead. What am I doing wrong? February 16, 2019 at 3:41pm Reply

    • Andy: It is absolutely normal for orchids to drop their flowers at some point, but the amount of time until the plant re-blooms will depend on the type of orchid and the conditions. If the plants you have bought are phalaenopsis, the most common ones sold at garden shops and florists, I often find that the plants may be reaching the end of their bloom period when purchased (they may spend a long time in less than optimal conditions traveling from a production greenhouse, through various points of distribution, before finally ending up in your home). These phalaenopsis orchids grow slowly, but typically re-bloom once a year for me in average home conditions, usually in the spring. February 17, 2019 at 4:24pm Reply

  • Megan: I like orchids – one of few flowers that I like that isn’t toxic to cats. February 16, 2019 at 8:58pm Reply

    • Andy: Good to know, given that vanilla, one of the most common products that comes from an orchid, is a common ingredient in so many human foods. February 17, 2019 at 4:29pm Reply

  • ninon: Oh my this is gorgeous. As is traditional for women in my culture, my mother and grandmother both grew orchids. I, on the other hand, can scarcely keep them alive.

    Thank you, Silvermoon, for your comment–I wish I had gone to the botanical gardens in Leiden when I was last in Holland. February 17, 2019 at 12:00am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello Ninon, the gardens were beautiful. Absolutely worth visiting. I was in Leiden for a conference/work, so only managed a two hour break (one could spend longer if one wanted, there was so much to see). The orchids were particularly beautiful to see.

      And yes, orchids seem hard to keep alive, as both you and Jodee comment. February 17, 2019 at 3:52am Reply

    • Andy: Do you happen to know what kinds of orchids are traditionally grown in your culture? Some are relatively easy to grow, but many kinds can be notoriously difficult too.

      And don’t feel bad–there are lots of kinds of plants that others find easy, but which I kill routinely, like African violets. I think everyone has a different style of watering and caring for plants, the important part is to have fun! February 17, 2019 at 4:38pm Reply

      • Ninon: Thank you, Andy. I’m part Indonesian, so there are many options–I just don’t know which varieties are easiest. February 21, 2019 at 5:04pm Reply

  • Aurora: I’ve learned so much from this article, Andy and Victoria’s photos are gorgeous.

    Yes, in perfumes orchids often mean a non-descript scent, no match for the scents of the real flowers you eloquently describe. February 17, 2019 at 3:58am Reply

    • Andy: It’s a shame that orchid is treated as more of a fantasy note than anything else in perfume. I think most perfumers would find the scents of orchids very inspiring for their work, and the last time I remember reading about a perfume being inspired by an orchid was in reference to the Givaudan headspace used for Tom Ford Black Orchid. I’m still waiting on a perfume that captures the musky sweetness of Oncidiums, though. 🙂 February 17, 2019 at 4:46pm Reply

  • OperaFan: Hi Andy – I can have a whole other conversation with you about Orchids. I have been growing mini phalaenopsis orchids for many years. The oldest pair goes back to the late ’90s. Just 2 years ago I acquired my very first pair of cattleya seedlings, and am eagerly awaiting their eventual bloom development. I may have a few more years to wait as they are quite tiny still, but what they say about “good things”….
    I will need to look up the ones in your list. My dad had a burgundy colored Oncidium in Taiwan, and I remember enjoying its lovely vanilla scent.

    [BTW – Need to pick up our discussion on David Austin Roses – My summer got so busy last year…..] 🙁 February 18, 2019 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Andy: I love the mini phalaenopsis orchids. I had a variegated chimeric one, but I had trouble getting it to rebloom. The leaves were beautiful, though. I love the scent of oncidiums, both sweet and very musky, especially in the various Oncidium Twinkle hybrids.

      Yes, we must pick our discussion up! I too got very busy around midsummer. Even right now, when there’s less gardening for me outside, my committee is getting details for the community garden season together. February 19, 2019 at 9:29am Reply

  • Jodee: Yes, we typically purchase the white phalaenopsis at Whole Foods. I’m glad to hear that they do rebloom annually. I’ll just try to be a bit more patient! Also, I think we might try our hand at growing your recommended orchids. Thanks for the article! February 18, 2019 at 6:21pm Reply

    • Andy: I wish you the best of luck! I also recommend reading more online or finding books on growing orchids, as these make it easy to know how to pot the plants, when to fertilize and water, etc. February 19, 2019 at 9:33am Reply

  • Maria: Thank you Andy for this beautiful article! After my pregnancy I must confess I change my perfume collection for an orchid collection, and I really love it. I have some Oncidiums (including Sharry that smells like chocolate and vanilla), but my beloved ones are the Encyclias. I’ve smelled one in an exposition that smell like pure iris roots!! February 19, 2019 at 1:46pm Reply

    • Andy: I’ve never grown Encyclias before, but they are beautiful, and I didn’t know they were beautifully scented either (as it happens, the people who write orchid books don’t always emphasize the quality of scentedness as often as I’d wish). But an orchid that smells like iris root? Now that’s something I’ve yet to experience! February 19, 2019 at 3:47pm Reply

      • Maria: It won a prize at the Orchids Exposition in Montreal, last year. I forgot its full name, but I think it was grown somewhere in California February 20, 2019 at 9:01am Reply

        • Andy: I’ve never been to a dedicated orchid exposition, but I go to the Philadelphia Flower Show most years, and my favorite part are the judged horticultural competitions. The winners are sometimes a great surprise. February 20, 2019 at 9:07am Reply

  • nozknoz: Great article, thank you!

    For these in the DC area, The Hillwood Estate has a green house with many orchids. March is Orchid Month for them (and I think for the US Botanic Garden, too).

    At Hillwood I’ve noticed some dark wine-colored orchids that smell a bit like chocolate. February 27, 2019 at 11:51pm Reply

    • Andy: Thanks for sharing these recommendations! February 28, 2019 at 9:35am Reply

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