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Education Blog

Dendrobium Orchids and Chinese Medical Practices


Mütter EDU Staff

May 24, 2022

Hello, readers, this is Jacqui Bowman, and I am the co-director of living exhibits here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I am here to talk more about the role of plants in medicine, specifically the role of Dendrobium orchids. You may recall a few months ago we announced the Mütter Museum about the genus Dendrobium and its historical and contemporary importance in medicine. This article is a continuation of that series.

In our past article, we examined how the genus Dendrobium has had a long history in Chinese medicinal practices, with its use dating as far back as the first century CE. In honor of , I reached out to Li Edwards the Executive Director of the newly-opened . Li is a fellow plant enthusiast who graciously shared her passion for orchids with me.

Regarding the contemporary medicinal uses of Dendrobium orchids in Chinese culture, she said that most people will use the stem or the flowers. They will steep (or boil) them like herbal tea (like steeping Chamomile flowers), and then drink the tea. She herself uses Dendrobium catenatum, specifically the stems of the plants, which she cuts it into pieces and boils with water. According to Li, Dendrobium catenatum is considered to be one of the top nine medicinal herbs in China.

Most people use Dendrobium as a tonic. According to Li:

“In traditional Chinese medicine, we believe that the opposite of 'cooling' is 'heatiness' which is when the body accumulates excess heat from rich food we consume. The direct translation is 'Fire.' If someone's body is 'on fire,' we use many ways to cool it down, such as eating pears, eating watermelons (particularly eating the skins of watermelon). Drinking Dendrobium orchid tea is also a good way to remove the fire from your body and cool it down.”

Most people buy the Dendrobium already prepared; they can buy them as Dendrobium orchid "dried stem." Meanwhile, some sellers make it into powder for people to consume it more easily. According to Li, “I do know some Chinese people here in the US grow Dendrobium orchid themselves with the purpose to pick the stem and flowers and consume it directly (I also belong to this group), but some Chinese people don't believe the orchid you grow at home can be as effective as those sold in the market, because it is believed that the most effective orchid are growing naturally in the stone or high on mountain.”

That explains why the Chinese name for Dendrobium catenatum is Shihu, which means “living on rocks.”

Next time, we'll examine how these orchids are found in the wild, and their conservation status.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Mütter Museum's indoor mini exhibit where we have examples of two other Dendrobium orchids that are used in medicine: Dendrobium moniliforme and Dendrobium purpureum. The display will move outside to the in June and more species will be added. We hope you'll come by and see for yourself!