The Pearl Orchid: As pretty as Chicken Feet

The Pearl Orchid is a tender perennial native to Southern China. It has a dry scientific name: Chloranthus spicatus, meaning greenish yellow flowers on spikes. This description is quite accurate but its other Chinese common name is much more visual and memorable: Chicken Feet Orchid. How could both pearl and chicken feet be used to describe the same plant? I challenge anyone to think of another plant with such a pair of contradicting names. Granted in China chicken feet do not have the same stigma as here in the U.S, but my point still stands. This plant is also called “Golden Millet Orchid”, alluding to the color, size, and shape of individual flowers.

A lot of non-orchids are called orchids in China since either their leaf shapes or their fragrance remind people of miniature Chinese Cymbidiums. For example, Chlorophytum is ‘Hanging Orchid and Michelia alba is ‘White Orchid’. Our featured plant, the Pearl Orchid, is not a true orchid either. It is being called one due to its floral fragrance. This is a trouble free plant with smooth, glossy, slightly puckered green leaves and tender, semi-crawling stems. It prefers warm moist shady conditions and humus rich well-drained soil. The blooming period is from summer to fall and the flowers are exceedingly fragrant. As a house plant, this one easily beats out Gardenia and Jasminum sambac for producing fragrant flowers under low light conditions. Traditionally in China, the flowers are used to scent tea, and the finished floral scented tea used to enjoy popularity right behind those scented with Jasminum sambac and Michelia alba.

The Pearl Orchid is very easy to propagate from divisions or cuttings. I bought a small 4″ one for $3 from the old South Pacific Orchids Nursery in San Martin, CA back in 1999. I also saw one unlabelled plant for sale in a hanging basket at the house plant section at East Bay Nursery in Berkeley around 2000. However, since then this plant seems to have dropped out of the trade completely, to the point that I think this may be the most uncommon plant I grow now as I can not find even one commercial source. Plant Delights Nursery and Asiatica Nursery both have a few other Chloranthus species listed in their current catalogs. Unfortunately, none of them are fragrant. It is my hope that some nursery will re-introduce Chloranthus spicatus to the market here in the U.S.

One thought on “The Pearl Orchid: As pretty as Chicken Feet

  1. Chicken feet orchid sounds just right for my back yard’s conditions. Are you sure the fragrance doesn’t remind people of the popular dim sum, chicken feet on toast? Alas, I show my true crassness. The Golden Millet Orchid name seems more descriptive to me (so that’s two food names for this plant, and one jewel).

    So what seems to be the naming system for plants in China? Fragrant flowers are all called orchids? Do Chinese botanists use the Linnaean system of nomenclature, or is there a Mandarin equivalent? Or do plants just have well-known common names that most people agree on? (And how do you persuade 1.2 billion people to agree on anything? But that’s another story.)