Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

On orchids and testes

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Drawing of an orchid with tubers visible
Orchis anthropophora (L.) All. (originally labeled Aceras anthropophorum (L.) R.Br.). From Album des Orchidées d’Europe by Henry Correvon, 1923. Swiss Orchid Foundation at the Herbarium Jany Renz. Botanical Institute, University of Basel, Switzerland.

“You like orchids?…Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, their perfume the rotten sweetness of corruption.”
– John Steinbeck

Orchids belong to a widespread group of flowering plants. There are about 28,000 species of orchids worldwide.1 The underground tubers of many European orchids—which contain the plant’s reserve food supply—resemble a pair of testicles, or testes. Theophrastus (372–286 BC), a Greek philosopher, named orchids after the Greek word orchis, meaning testicle.2 In Middle English the orchid was called “bollockwort,” meaning “testicle plant.”3 These plants were cultivated as early as the twenty-eighth century BC in China. It is uncertain if they were simply grown as ornamental plants or had other uses.

Throughout history, many plants were used for medicinal purposes according to their resemblance to parts of the human anatomy. This led to orchid tubers’ use in the treatment of diseases of the testes and “to stimulate lust.” In sixteenth-century England, medications derived from orchids were used to treat alcohol-induced gastritis,4,5 fever, and diarrhea.6 In the Americas, vanilla was derived from the orchid Vanilla planifolia. In today’s Chinese herbal medicine, at least four different orchid species are used in making medications to treat indigestion, dehydration, fever, hypertension, convulsions, and headache.7 In other parts of the world, including South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Australia, Greece, and Trinidad and Tobago, many orchid species are used in treating diabetes, as diuretics, and as antibacterial and antiviral medications.8

The inventor of the binomial nomenclature system, the Swede Karl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), named this plant family “orchideae,” thinking that the stem of the Latin “orchis” (directly derived from the Greek) was “orchid-.” Thus, medical terms relating to the testicle, such as orchidectomy (the removal of a testicle), should, on etymological grounds, be orchiectomy or orchisectomy.9


  1. “Orchid.” Wikipedia.
  2. C. Bulpitt. “The uses and misuses of orchids in medicine,” QJM 98(9), 2005.
  3. “Orchid.” Wikipedia.
  4. Rose Gutiérrez. “Orchids: A review of uses in traditional medicine, its phytochemistry and pharmacology,” Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 4(8), 2010.
  5. Bulpitt. “Uses and misuses.”
  6. Bulpitt. “Uses and misuses.”
  7. Bulpitt. “Uses and misuses.”
  8. Gutiérrez. “A review.”
  9. B. Freedman. “Any questions?” BMJ (Clinical Research Edition) 288(6430), 1984.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2023



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