Roses, Orchids, and Cacao

By Susan Morgan

During the season of Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, and Carnival, love and celebration is on our minds. If you are looking for some interesting plant stories to engage horticultural therapy clients, take a note from the season’s themes with plants that may make them “swoon and cheer.” These stories can be adapted year-round. Here are a few interesting facts about some beloved plants: roses, orchids, and cacao.


In the language of flowers, orange roses represent enthusiasm and gratitude.

In the 1800’s, floral language dictionaries identified flowers, herbs, and other plants and outlined their corresponding sentiments. People exchanged floral bouquets, whose ingredients communicated messages from sender to recipient. Perhaps no other flower is more alluring than the rose. In the language of flowers, roses mean love and much more, depending on the bloom color. Red roses represent passion and romantic love, white roses new beginnings, and yellow roses joy and friendship.


Collect stems from the garden and/or florist to create tussie mussies, bouquets that communicate a message.

Engage clients in making tussie mussies – bouquets that “say” a message – with roses and other plants from the garden. What messages could you communicate with a bouquet of flowers? This could develop into a deeper conversation about the other ways in which we communicate. Take a mindful moment with clients to “stop and smell the roses.” Examine a single rose flower up close. Hold the stem in your hand, noting the flower’s texture – the soft petals, waxy leaves, and sturdy and hopefully not-too-thorny stem. Note the arrangement of the flower petals and how they seem to spiral outwards from the center. Bring the flower up to your nose – does it have a fragrance? Maybe or maybe not. Many of today’s roses have been bred to display showy, long-lasting flowers that survive shipping, and through that process, the sweet fragrance has seemingly disappeared from many modern roses. Brainstorm about other flowers that provide fragrance in the garden – hyacinths, gardenias, and lilacs. Then imagine the sensory experience of walking through a garden planted with old fashioned roses and other fragrant plants.


Take a deeper look at the variety of orchids and their pollinators around the world.

In the language of flowers, orchids also represent love and passion. With more than 25,000 species of epiphytic and terrestrial plants, the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is thought to be the largest family of plants in the world. Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium, among other orchids, are grown as houseplants and were even found to help clean toxins, like formaldehyde and benzene, from indoor air, according to the NASA Clean Air Study (1989).

Ask anyone what Americans’ favorite ice cream flavor is, and they’ll say “vanilla.” Did you know that vanilla comes from the “beans” of the Vanilla orchid? There are about 100 different species in the genus Vanilla, but V. planifolia is the primary species used to produce the vanilla we consume. Native to Mexico, this vanilla orchid will only grow about 20 degrees north and south of the equator and is grown commercially in tropical areas around the world. Its sweet scented flowers are pollinated primarily by stingless bees native to Central America, as well as certain hummingbirds. Flowers open for a day and then close if not pollinated within that day. In areas (like Madagascar) where these orchids are grown and their pollinators are not native, the vanilla orchids are pollinated by hand with small toothpick-like instruments. Imagine being the person who does that job.

The delicate relationship between orchids and their pollinators is an interesting one to study and marvel and can spark interesting conversation about our own personal relationships or the importance of pollinators. Study the coevolution of bee orchids (solitary bees), ghost orchids (giant sphinx moths), and others with their pollinators. Take a look at pictures of these orchid flowers and their pollinators and then examine the flower and plant parts of a live orchid. Work with clients to grow one or more orchids as houseplants – they require a little more than your typical houseplant, needing frequent misting and periodic deep watering.

We can’t talk about vanilla without mentioning chocolate, the second most popular ice cream flavor in the United States. Chocolate is made from the “beans” of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, whose botanical name translates to “food of the gods.” Cacao is a small understory tree native to parts of Central and South America. Our love of chocolate dates back for centuries when the Aztecs put a significant value on cacao, trading cacao beans as currency and consuming a chocolate drink named xocolatl, meaning “bitter water.” Like vanilla orchids, it also thrives in tropical areas around the equator, and its flowers that grow along the tree trunk open for a day, waiting for tiny gnat-like flies called midges to pollinate them. If unpollinated, the flowers close up and fall off the trees. Of the thousands of flowers on the cacao tree, it is estimated that less than ten percent of the flowers are pollinated and eventually develop into fruit. Crack open a ripe cacao fruit, and you can sample the sweet juice, which unfortunately does not taste like chocolate. The bitter cacao seeds are harvested and used in the chocolate making process.


For a chocolate themed activity, research and grow various chocolate scented plants, like chocolate mint (shown here), chocolate scented geranium, and more.

Combine a conversation about vanilla orchids and cacao to pique client interest and note the differences and similarities of the two plants, like how and where they grow. Or, sample different kinds of chocolate from around the world, research various chocolate scented plants like chocolate mint, chocolate cosmos, and more, or hold a spa day with cocoa butter lotion, in combination with products made using other relaxing herbs like lavender and chamomile.