Betty Ford and her husband, Gerald, were eagerly looking forward to retirement following his 13 successful terms as a Congressman from Michigan. The plan changed following a series of unlikely events which elevated Mr. Ford first to vice president and then to president. Within that eight month period, Betty Ford found herself First Lady of the United States.
Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren ‘Betty’ Ford championed a number of important causes during her short tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights as well as breast cancer awareness. She later founded and chaired the California-based Betty Ford Clinic for substance abuse.
Mrs. Ford was a flower enthusiast and, in 1982, was scheduled to appear at the Allied Florists Convention in Denver, CO. Hausermann Orchids, of Villa Park, Il, had previously presented Pat Nixon with her namesake orchid and jumped at the chance to meet the former First Lady.
As soon as it was announced that Mrs. Ford would attend the springtime convention, Hausermann looked through their stock and found a lovely floriferous purple hybrid which had not yet been named. They promptly registered the cross as Laeliocattleya Betty Ford (Lc Nigrescent x Lc Barbara’s Delight). As the date for the event approached, however, none of the plants were blooming. Faced with having no flowers for the presentation, company representative Roy Hausermann decided to use a framed picture of Lc Betty Ford ‘Winter Delight’ to show the former First Lady. Mrs. Ford was all smiles and loved the gesture.
Lc Betty Ford was by far the most complex of any first lady hybrid to date. It had an exceptionally long lineage comprising seven generations of breeding and twelve different species. One of its parents was Lc Nigrescent (C Nigritian x Lc Bonanza) which had an impressive background of some of the darkest hybrids ever made. The other parent, Lc Barbara’s Delight (Lc Aristocrat x Lc Winter Belle), was built on the queen of good-shaped species, C trianaei and was named after Gene Hausermann’s sister, Barbara.
Hausermann cloned the two best varieties of the cross and made them available to the public. The first was the same flower shown to Mrs. Ford, ‘Winter Delight’, a medium lavender with a two-tone yellow/purple throat. The second was ‘York’, a dark purple with an even darker throat, named after nearby York township.
‘Winter Delight’ was heavily promoted in the Hausermann catalog and, as late as 1992, was featured on the back cover. ‘York’ was also listed and, for many years, both varieties were sold in all sizes ranging from young plants in 2” pots to specimens in 8” pots. The company had also grown and was now approaching 160,000 square feet of greenhouse space.
Despite its fame and early sales, ‘Winter Delight’ was eventually phased out in favor of ‘York’. Hobbyists sought the rich coloring as well as ‘York’’s superior vigor - large pseudo-bulbs, thick fleshy leaves, 4-5 large flowers per pseudo-bulb and multiple leads in a pot.
One of the fascinating characteristics of ‘York’ is that, although this variety is normally a reliable November/December bloomer, bud formation can be delayed by using a technique that is rarely found today – the addition of lights. Back in the cut flower days, commercial nurseries would speed up or delay blooming times to coincide with the demand for corsages – usually holidays and dances. Only a few cattleya species can have their flowering season altered significantly. C labiata and some of its hybrids (including Lc Betty Ford) are controllable by light because, in the jungle, the Brazilian species starts to bloom when the days get shorter.
Growers discovered that a single incandescent light bulb, which turned on at dusk, effectively created longer daylight and could delay a C labiata hybrid for months. Over time, a formula was developed that calculated the exact number of light bulb hours needed to gain the desired delay in blooming time. Growers would refer to a chart and set their timers accordingly.
Today, Lc Betty Ford ‘York’ is by far the most widely circulated of all the first lady hybrids. It is common to see the plant on orchid society show tables around the country during the winter months – usually with a blue ribbon attached. In 2009, ‘York’ received an Award of Merit from the American Orchid Society – 27 years after the cross was first registered.
Mrs. Ford’s legacy of empowering women and helping others will continue for generations. Thousands of orchid hobbyists around the globe are reminded of this legacy each year when her namesake cattleya unfurls its glorious richly-colored dark blossoms. Her maiden name was, after all, Bloomer.