Swedish folklore distinguishes between an orkidebarn, or “orchid child,” and amaskrosbarn, a “dandelion child.” Like the flowers of that name, dandelion children are resilient to life’s slings and arrows; they manage to thrive in just about any environment, thanks to a self-nurturing nature that’s impervious to outside forces and factors that would keep them down. Orchid children, on the other hand, are fragile like the flower. They need lots of TLC from parents or caregivers if they are to blossom. But if and when they do flower, so the traditional belief goes, it is something to behold.
In recent years, developmental specialists have found that there is a scientific basis for this folklore — so much so that they have come up with an “orchid hypothesis.” Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona and W. Thomas Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley, who study genetics and child development, got the ball rolling by identifying gene sequences that can pinpoint an orchid child, whom they equate with “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”
According to psychology writer Wray Herbert:
The idea of resilient children was hardly new, nor was the related idea that some kids are especially vulnerable to the stresses of their world. What was novel was the idea that some of the vulnerable, highly reactive children — the orchid children — had the capacity for both withering and thriving.
The same gene sequences can lead you to soar, or to plummet, spectacularly. This make-or-break capacity is at the center of ongoing efforts to develop strategies for nurturing children to help ensure that those of the orchid variety burgeon.
My daughter, Cali, seems a mix of both the orchid and the dandelion. My wife is the dandelion in the family. When I asked her what kind of flower she thought I was, the flower enthusiast replied, after giving it some thought, that I was a late and long bloomer, like the monkshood. I suspect that down the road it will be discovered that there are many other kinds of ‘flower children.’
Maybe one day, a genetic analysis will reveal whether we’re likely to be early bloomers or late ones, or even whether we’re apt to bloom periodically, like perennials, or maybe just once in our lifetime, like the spiky, exotic, six-foot-tall Puya berteroniana, which waits for nearly a century before it comes to full bloom, only to fade and die about two weeks later. Or the time might come when we’ll be able to determine through a close inspection of our genes whether some of us need to experience harsh or challenging conditions that test our mettle in order for us to display our ‘flower power’ in all its glory.
Probably gene sequences will be discovered that reveal that some of us are akin to azaleas or crocuses: unlike most flowers, which wilt if there’s a sudden chill, they must experience a punctuated period of harsh conditions in order to bloom. Some percentage of us may need to experience an existential deep freeze in order to unfold, sort of similar to Witch Hazel, which unlike most flowers, blooms in the dead of winter. Even if gene sequencing becomes so refined that it makes it possible for our natures to be identified with great precision, surely, there will always be those who will defy whatever their inner programming predicts their blossoming can or will amount to. Just as there will continue to be those who will rise above their genes, and those who don’t live up to their genes’ potential. There will be those who become like any flower, or blend of flowers, they choose to be, and those who will create new types, not just hybrids, but species unto themselves.
Can we ever know when a human is blossoming fully? Perhaps it’s easy to tell with an orchid child, since they flower in such a blaze. But overly rigid or simplistic criteria for what constitutes human flourishing can blind us to its more muted occurrences. For instance, some among our species are like the Japanese Holly; they flower in so subtle and insignificant a way that one can miss it altogether unless one knows how to look. More to the point, if we equate human blossoming mostly with happiness, we might discount the fact that some of the most deeply unhappy people, from Sigmund Freud to Friedrich Nietzsche to Edith Wharton, have left us some of the most lasting and insightful works. Despair, depression and trauma can be among the elements that lead to exceptional artistry or insight. On occasions, they can serve to liberate.
While we shouldn’t purposefully create conditions that cause anyone to experience life at its most negative or destructive extremes, there is also a different kind of risk in going to lengths to control conditions overmuch for one’s growth, to protect and preserve in ways that seal one off to unexpected opportunities for growth. Struggle, intensity, suffering, adversity are often part of the fabric of a fully flourishing creative life.