In the U.S., especially in California, when someone mentions cymbidium, it is usually a large potted evergreen semi-terrestrial orchid that comes to mind. This one has grassy leaves up to 3′ long and 1″ wide, with clusters of big pseudo-bulbs the size of large eggs. During winter and spring, many flower spikes shoot up from the base of the pseudo-bulbs, and each spike holds many large, cupped blooms. Since their colors are not very saturated, these flowers are not as showy as those of some other tropical orchids such as Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, and Cattleya, but they make up for it by being one of the easiest orchids to grow.
In China, the word for ‘Cymbidium’ is the word for ‘Orchid’ 兰花. However, it is referring to a group of miniature cymbidiums that have been cultivated for thousands of years. Confucious said “An orchid growing in a remote valley gives off its scent even if nobody is around”. Over the years, these miniature cymbidiums have become the symbol of virtue, purity, and elegance. Most commonly seen are the following four species:
Cymbidium goeringii (Spring Orchid, 春兰) is the most revered Chinese cymbidium. It usually has only one bloom per stalk in spring. The fragrance is quite fabulous but the flowers do not come in large quantities, so the overall effect is subtle. There are hundreds of cultivars, with the ultra-dwarf (4-6″ tall) and ultra-wide petaled (Lotus petaled, 莲瓣) cultivars being the most sought after. A 2-3 shoots division of some varieties can cost several thousand dollars.
Cymbidium faberi (蕙兰) blooms in the same season as Cym. goeringii. In nature, these two can be found sharing the same habitat, so their growth habits are very similar. This species has many flowers per stalk, but their fragrance is much less intense. It is considered inferior to Cym. goeringii but still has quite a number of cultivars. It is very rare in the U.S.
Cymbidium ensifolium (建兰) is a summer-fall blooming orchid with excellent fragrance from multiple flowers on multiple stalks in healthy specimens. This is the one to try first if you are into Chinese cymbidiums. Cym. Golden Elf is an offspring of this species. Tie Gu Su Xin(Iron Bone Plain flower 铁骨素心) is a famous cultivar.
Cymbidium sinense (墨兰) is very popular in Taiwan. It has wider leaves than Cym. goeringii, with some varieties selected for their variegated foliage only. This species prefers warmer temperature and has many flowers per stalk blooming around the Chinese New Year. Because of this coincidence, they are also called Bao Sui Lan (Heralding New Year Orchid 报岁兰). Their fragrance is mild and sweet, not as exotic or strong as the other Chinese Cymbidiums.
There are a number of other miniature Cymbidium species in China and Vietnam. Some are fragrant such as Cym. kanran 寒兰, some are not, like Cym. dayanum 冬凤兰. The main knock on all these Chinese cymbidiums is that they are not showy: The flowers are either white or green, their size is small, their foliage looks like a small clump of evergreen grass, their blooming season is not very long, and their culture is quite tricky(needs the right mychorrizae fungi for the roots). However, in Chinese aesthetics, the elegant leaf forms and the wonderful fragrance of these orchids are their main attractions. For showy blooms, people would look for peonies, chrysanthemums, magnolias, roses, and camellias.
In China, except for those fancy cultivars, these cymbidiums are traditionally treated like annuals, where wild dug specimens were sold in the cities before their blooming season every year. Because of this practice, many wild habitats were dessimated. New protection efforts have been put in place and new propagation techniques (such as tissue culture) have been applied to both meet the market demand and to ease the pressure on wild population.
I have tried a number of them but only have a Cym. sinense and a Cym. ensifolium struggling to survive. There are several people in the Bay Area growing wonderful specimens, so it is probably my horticultural skill that needs improvement. If you can not find any of these Chinese Cymbidiums, two tropical shrubs, Aglaia odorata (米兰 and Chloranthus spicatus 珠兰, are very good imitations fragrance-wise.