The cymbidium orchid is native to tropical zones in Asia and Australia. It can be grown as a potted plant with careful monitoring of temperature and light. These orchids have waxy leaves and as many as 20 flowers on a stem. The flowers may vary from 1 to 5 inches in diameter. While not poisonous, the plants may cause an allergic dermatitis.
The Toronto Botanical Gardens describe the cymbidium orchid as a poisonous plant because it contains quinone. Some people react to quinone when there is contact with the skin, and develop rashes. For this reason it is best to wear gloves when working with these plants. Children and pets should not be allowed contact with these orchids.
The Chinese were the first to grow orchids and to explore their medicinal properties. The Chinese believed that the orchid stood for all things feminine. A Japanese legend describes the fragrance as enhancing fertility in a Japanese Emperor's wife. The woman inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of the Cymbidium ensifolium and went on to bear 13 children. Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica in the first century A.D. and promoted the ‘Doctrine of Signatures.’ This doctrine suggested that plants had medicinal properties for the body parts which they resembled. The Greeks believed that the tubers were beneficial to male testicles.
Cymbidiums are considered epiphytes, or plants that store water and collect it from humidity. These plants are able to grow in trees without soil and have pseudobulbs and thick stems. These pseudobulbs were cooked by Australian aborigines as a food. Some alkaloids in orchids are toxic so this practice is not recommended if the user does not know the native plants. In Zambia boiled root tubers are used in a food dish, Chikanda or Kinaka, and are said to provide an "orchid rush."
The cymbidium genus of orchids has 44 species. Some cultures have dried the pseudobulbs and extracted spices from them. The Arabic word for one such extraction is ‘Sahlep,’ later becoming altered to Salep. Salep was used to make a hot drink and sold in the streets of London in the 1600s.
Since orchids contain about 20 alkaloids, it is not surprising that many uses have been attempted. However, no current medical studies prove the effectiveness of these uses. Some of these alkaloids cause a skin reaction in some individuals and some are toxic.