John F. Kennedy was only 43 years old in 1960 when he became President of the United States, and he introduced a feeling of youth and excitement into the White House. His two young children were always underfoot and his young wife, Jacqueline, age 31, was a fashion statement not only in this country but overseas as well. Everything Jacqueline Kennedy touched seemed to acquire a feeling of glamour whether it was her long pearl necklaces, stylish pillbox hats, or elegant dresses.
As First Lady, she established the Office of the White House Florist, complete with an official floral decorator. She used cut orchid sprays – especially early white Phalaenopsis hybrids and standard Cymbidiums of all colors - tucked in flower arrangements throughout the White House.
Mrs. Kennedy’s immediate predecessor, Mamie Eisenhower, had left a lasting impression of the importance of Cattleyas to a First Lady’s image. So it was no surprise that, in 1960 and 1961, two of the largest nurseries on the east coast, Rivermont Orchids and H. Patterson & Sons each submitted applications to register a cattleya for the new First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
According to strict Royal Horticultural Society rules, the first application received has the honor of using the proposed name. As luck would have it, both Rivermont and Patterson got approved because of slight differences in the breeding classifications – Rivermont’s hybrid was a Laeliocattleya and Patterson’s was simply a Cattleya. It was the first time that a First Lady had two orchids named after her.
Rivermont’s Laeliocattleya Jacqueline Kennedy (Elissa x Derrynane) was a display of the best purple stud plants of the day. There were a total of ten species involved in this hybrid, going back seven generations, making this the most complex First Lady Cattleya to date (Mrs. Herbert Hoover began the series in 1929).
Rivermont’s nursery was a massive two acre operation with 15 greenhouses located near Chattanooga, TN. The owner, Clint McDade, was well known in the orchid world for creating outstanding white hybrids. His famed Cattleya Bob Betts (Bow Bells x mossiae), registered in 1950, remains the most awarded white cattleya in the history of the American Orchid Society with over 66 awards.
Like Mrs. Kennedy herself, Rivermont’s hybrid was not without a little mystery and intrigue. Bred with a long line of rich purple ancestors, this cross produced some unlikely semi-albas. Today, there are few, if any, known plants of either the purple or the semi-alba Rivermont plant in existence.
Although Rivermont’s Laeliocattleya Jacqueline Kennedy was named first, it was Patterson’s Cattleya Jacqueline Kennedy (Enid x Ardmore) that took over the orchid world. Patterson’s plant was a beautiful semi-alba with glistening white sepals and petals and a purple lip. Harold Patterson, who did the breeding for H. Patterson & Sons, made and re-made the First Lady hybrid 18 times between the years of 1957 and 1960.
Patterson was aiming for huge quantities of near-perfect mid-May blossoms for the cut flower trade. They were also selling tiny seedlings to orchid hobbyists. Unlike Rivermont’s purple Laeliocattleya, Patterson’s Cattleya was quite simple. It was just a primary hybrid, C. Enid (warscewiczii x mossiae) crossed with a secondary hybrid, C Ardmore (Enid x mossiae).
The Patterson nursery, nicknamed ‘Orchidhaven’, was a multi-generation business located in New Jersey. The first greenhouse was built in the early 1930’s and by their peak in the 1960’s, there was 100,000 square feet of growing space. Their Cattleya Jacqueline Kennedy became widely circulated and can still be found in collections today.
What will be remembered most about Jacqueline Kennedy and her two namesake orchids is that she entered the White House at the tender age of 31 sporting a fashion style that was much different than her predecessors. Orchids were not to be worn but rather enjoyed in flower arrangements and as wedding accoutrements.