Inside The New York Botanical Garden

What’s in a Name? Paphs, Cyps, and Phrags

Posted in History on March 9 2017, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has a Certificate in Botany from The New York Botanical Garden and has been a tour guide at NYBG for the past two years.

Photo of a Paphiopedilum orchidThe Orchid Show: Thailand features a genus of lady’s slipper orchids native to Eastern Asia known as Paphiopedilum. The Latin name has a beautiful background story relating to the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.

According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born out of the sea, and landed at the site of Paphos on the island of Cyprus. A great temple was built in her honor at Paphos (and ruins remain there today). This orchid’s shape and beauty would have made it a suitable slipper for the goddess of love; hence it was named Paphiopedilum (Paphio- for the city of Paphos, –pedilum from the Ancient Greek word pedilon, meaning slipper).

Cypripedium is a genus of lady’s slipper orchid native to most of the Northern Hemisphere, and it also happens to have a name inspired by the popular Aphrodite (Cypri– because Aphrodite was the Lady of Cyprus). Another common genus of lady’s slipper orchid, native to Mexico and South America, has a much more scientifically derived Latin name: Phragmipedium (Phragma is Greek for “division,” i.e. the ovary is divided into three).

Photo of a Phragmipedium orchidYou may also hear these flowers referred to as Venus’ slippers, as Venus is the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

Beautiful as these names are, they can trip the tongue, and so they are abbreviated in the orchid trade as Paphs, Cyps, and Phrags.

One of my personal favorite moments is to see the various species of Cypripedium emerging in the spring, after a cold New York winter, displaying their ephemeral, Aphrodite-like beauty in the Native Plant Garden. But you can find lady’s slipper orchids from each genus blooming indoors at NYBG year-round—and, of course, throughout the Orchid Show, running through April 9.


Sue said:

SUPERB in every way!
Great Photos and Very Interesting Text!
Hope you write more; I love linking mythology to our flowers.

Michael Penziner said:

Good job, Katherine. Well written article.

Priscilla said:

What a fascinating story! I will keep my eye out for these species of Cypripedium on my next trip to the Native Plant Garden and Conservatory.

Laura said:

Plant nomenclature made easy!
Thank you for explaining it so nicely.
I suggest a series of posts about plant nomenclature by the same author.
I cannot wait for the next one.

Anthony said:

My wife showed this post to me, and I was surprised at how much I loved it.
I am everything but a plant person, but this post enticed me. I will definitely visit the Orchid Show with my wife this weekend. Thanks! :-)

JW said:

Thanks for this. Didn’t know about the trade nicknames Paphs, Cyps, and Phrags — très drôle.
It’s wonderful how spending time with the flowers can give you entirely different kinds of experience. In the Buddhist sense, you can bask in a flower’s “suchness,” released from the tyranny of words and science. There’s the historical dimension like what you’ve written about, when exploring the linguistic roots of their names opens windows to times gone by. Focus on the science and you’re enthralled by the the wonderment of nature’s methods. Each way enriches immensely.
Thanks again!!

Lorraine said:

Very interesting! The story behind the names is as beautiful as the orchids!

Marty said:

Very interesting and informative, different perspective when I will see an Orchid

katy said:

Absolutely fascinating! Who knew there was so much mythical inspiration behind naming these beautiful orchids!

Anne said:

I love the backstories to the flowers. And I can’t wait for spring and to return to the NYBG!

Loree brown said:

My name is loree brown I came to see all of the orcharids the flowers are so
Beauiful I’m comming back very soon I’m going to become a member
Very soon I love flowers I used to work in two flower shops I’m from upstate
Ny Troy ny I came down on a bus
Loree brown
Troy ny 12180

Jacob said:

Wow! Great piece about the origin of names! Hope to hear more

Gerri said:

It’s the most beautiful time of the year, but the pollen is killing me! I wish I could enjoy more of the blooms.