The orchid industry, today, is on full throttle and commercial nurseries everywhere are having their best year in recent memory and possibly ever. There is a nationwide shortage of plants as retailers are having trouble getting product and many wholesalers are simply sold out. The last time there was a run on orchids to this extent was eighty years ago, during the corsage era.
The 1940’s was, indeed, the “The Golden Age of Cattleyas” because orchid corsages were in fashion and ladies everywhere were wearing them. My father recalls cattleyas “being worn to dances, the opera, or anywhere a woman wanted to look her very best.” It was a glamorous time and one that most people of that generation look back fondly on.
There were some informational books available but most enthusiasts got their material from the American Orchid Society’s, “Bulletin”, a pint-sized black & white magazine with 60 pages or so of culture, breeding, and history. Readers of the 1940’s were met with apologetic notices from nurseries who were unable to fill orders. We “withdraw all offerings of plants until further notice”, said one grower. “All shipments temporarily suspended”, said another. “Our quota of plants for sale is entirely exhausted” said a third.
The largest orchid distributor in the country, Thomas Young Orchids of Bound Brook, New Jersey, went so far as to run full page ads soliciting hobbyists for their extra cut flowers. Their slogan, “We will sell them for you”, was seen each month for several years in The Bulletin. With blooms selling for as much as $20 each (nearly $300 today), there was plenty of profits to go around.
This shortage of cattleya flowers led everyday people to get into the business. Hundreds of producers of all sizes sprang up practically overnight with homeowners in every neighborhood frantically erecting hobby greenhouses or lean-to structures and filling them up with cattleya plants.
The big commercial growers had ranges of greenhouses – all glass, with boilers and packing houses. A sizeable staff was required to run such an operation and included a dedicated person to cut the blooms, place them in water tubes, sort, pack, and deliver them to florists. This was big business and fortunes were made by those who were efficient.
Some of the biggest growers of the 1940’s included (alphabetically):
Alberts & Merkel of Boynton Beach, Florida was a 1947 collaboration between Albert’s Orchid Farm and Merkel Brothers. They prided themselves on fine varieties, ran pictures in The Bulletin, and issued illustrated catalogs.
Armacost & Royston of Los Angeles, California, billed itself as the “Largest Breeders of Orchids in America” and decided early on that good stud plants were the key to success. “Arm-Roy” sold in high volume and sent freight cars full of their hybrids to the East Coast.
E. W. McLellan Company of Colma, California, “Orchid Growers – Exporters – Importers – Hybridizers”, touted its 50 year growing experience in the mild San Francisco climate. The head house, alone, was 400’ long and their stud collection was billed as the “Finest Parents on Earth”.
Fennell Orchid Company “Orchid Jungle” of Homestead, Florida was a state tourist attraction where visitors could see orchids growing in natural conditions. They sold a wide variety of species and hybrids and three generations of the Fennell family ran the business. They also published Fennell’s Orchid News.
H. Patterson & Sons, “Orchidhaven”, of Bergenfield, New Jersey was an enormous operation with a dozen greenhouses. The family business included Henrietta (mother), sons Harold, Edwin, and George. Their stud plants were the “who’s who” of the orchid world.
Jones & Scully ‘Orchidglade’ of Miami, Florida opened in 1946 and sold cattleya seedlings and flasks to the hobbyist and commercial grower. Founder Robert M. Scully billed the company as “Growers and Hybridizers of Fine Orchids” but also offered companion plants. His wife, Lucile, produced their catalogs.
Kiesewetter Orchid Gardens of Long Island, New York was a vast nursery of cut flower stock but also sold cattleya seedlings in volume. They offered ‘light controllable’ hybrids that could be forced to bloom anytime from November to June.
Lager & Hurrell Orchid Growers of Summit, New Jersey was established in 1896 and billed as the “The Oldest Orchid Establishment in America.” They issued a 60 page wide ranging catalog of orchid species and hybrids. The founder’s son, John B Lager Jr, now ran the firm.
Rivermont Orchids of Chattanooga, Tennessee was primarily a cut flower operation, but also sold cattleya seedlings and community pots to hobbyists and commercial growers. It was a family affair with Clint McDade and his sons, Everest and Neil.
Thomas Young Orchids Inc of Bound Brook, New Jersey had a different kind of business model in that their plants were not for sale. “America’s Foremost Growers” had a massive greenhouse range in New Jersey, four satellite offices, and a nationwide network for florists who distributed their cut flowers.
These large growers and many others like them thrived during the 1940’s. The unbridled demand for cut orchids did not last, however, and it is rare to see anyone wearing a cattleya today. Nurseries had to change their product line or simply go out of business.
Yet, the plants themselves have never been more popular. Cattleyas are widely grown commercially for both hobbyists, who delight in their rich history, and for the general public who is looking to try something exotic. Perhaps one day, with fashion being cyclical, there will be a return to the “The Golden Age of Cattleyas”.