The Queen of the Orchid World Spreads Her Wings to Cover the Whole Year
When a vagabond plant collector named William Swainson sent a bundle of strange lavender-flowered plants thought to be parasitic to the Glasgow Botanic Garden in 1817, he opened the door to a flood of excitement that would engulf the horticultural world for the rest of the century.
Swainson had discovered the plants while he was exploring the steaming jungles of the province of Pernambuco in northern Brazil. He had seen them in full bloom when he arrived there in December 1816, and he couldn’t wait to collect some and send them back to Scotland.
At Swainson’s request, the Glasgow Botanic Garden gave some of the plants to a tropical plant enthusiast named William Cattley, who flowered one in his stove house in Barnet, England in November 1818. Swainson knew Cattley would like the just-discovered plants from Pernambuco because Cattley was addicted to collecting every new tropical plant he could find. The Pernambuco plants had flowers that were nothing short of spectacular in size, shape and color. They even had a sweet fragrance. Cattley was pleased beyond measure, and the new plants soon became the favorites in his collection.
In an effort to organize and describe his tropical plants, Cattley hired a young botanist, John Lindley, to catalog and illustrate his collection. Lindley did a yeoman’s service for Cattley and, when Lindley published his book Collectanea Botanica in 1821, he even thanked his boss for his several years’ employment by naming Swainson’s Brazilian discovery in Cattley’s honor. On tab 33 of Collectanea Botanica an appreciative Lindley established a new genus of orchids for Swainson’s plant and he called the plant Cattleya labiata. The publication of Collectanea Botanica was a great day for orchids because the new genus, Cattleya, would become one of the most sought-after and treasured members of the orchid family for years to come.
Most plant collectors who went to Brazil in the early 1800s landed at the civilized port of Rio de Janeiro midway down the coast, so when early writers on orchids described the discovery of C. labiata, they assumed Swainson had done the same thing. Swainson had sent a large shipment of plants from Rio de Janeiro before he left Brazil, so it seemed to follow that he found the orchids there. What these writers did not know was that Swainson started his trip in Pernambuco and shipped his C. labiata plants from Pernambuco before traveling south toward Rio de Janeiro. By the time C. labiata became the buzz of the horticultural world, Swainson had moved on to exploring the wilds of New Zealand where no one could talk with him or even find him to clarify the matter.
In 1836, when another British naturalist, George Gardner, traveled to Brazil, the myth about where C. labiata had been discovered became more embedded than ever. Gardner managed to misidentify the orchid Laelia lobata, calling it C. labiata instead, and the native habitat of Laelia lobata in the Organ Mountains of Rio de Janeiro suddenly became the “original home” of Cattleya labiata.
Pernambuco is more than a thousand miles from Rio de Janero, so the myth that C. labiata had been discovered in the Organ Mountains created a trauma in the orchid world. Exhausted plant hunters fought their way through the jungles of Rio de Janeiro and the adjacent province of Minas Gerais for 70 years looking for C. labiata without finding a single plant. Cattleya labiata became a lost orchid and the few plants that still existed in cultivation tantalized European orchid hunters, who set a determined course to find new species to add to Lindley’s genus Cattleya.
Cattleya labiata was the first of 17 large-flowered Cattleya species discovered by European collectors during the 1800s. It was not an easy job to find these species because they were usually hidden in the high cloud forests of the giant Andes Mountains, sometimes in impenetrable jungles, often teaming with deadly diseases and unfriendly natives. More than one collector died in the effort.
Ironically, the second large-flowered Cattleya species to appear on the orchid scene in Europe in the 1800s was not discovered in the 1800s. It had been found 44 years before C. labiata by two Spanish botanists, Ruiz and Pavon. The dried specimens this pair had sent from Peru to Spain in 1777 did not see the light of day until 1831, when John Lindley acquired them and described them as a new species, Cattleya maxima. The problem was, in 1831, no one had seen a live plant of C. maxima and no one even knew where to find one. There were now two large-flowered Cattleya species that were lost, and frustration reached new heights in the horticultural world of the 1830s.
Then, in 1836, the third large-flowered Cattleya species was discovered, this time in Venezuela, by George Green of Liverpool. It had taken 18 years after the appearance of C. labiata to find it. In 1836, William Jackson Hooker, a university professor in Glasgow received some Cattleya flowers from a friend of Green’s, a Mrs. Moss of Otterpool near Liverpool. Mrs. Moss also sent a folio sketch of the plant that she drew herself. The flowers of the new species were unusually large, measuring 81/2 inches (22 cm) across, and they made the flowers of Lindley’s C. labiata look small by comparison.
Hooker published a description of Cattleya mossiae in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (65: 3669) dedicating the plant to Mrs. Moss for all her efforts. He said C. mossiae was different from C. labiata because of the multiple leads produced by the plant, the large size of the flowers, their broader sepals and petals, and the color markings of their lip. What Hooker overlooked in his description was that C. mossiae flowered in the spring, while C. labiata flowered in the autumn. This wide difference in flowering season was far more important to establishing C. mossiae as a new species than the size of the flowers, their petal width, branching rhizomes and lip pattern. The picture Hooker published with his description depicts a classic C. mossiae with petals that fall forward and a deeply splashed lip pattern. But, C. mossiae also has clones with petals that stand upright like C. labiata and have a solid labiata-colored lip, so Hooker failed to make a case that his C. mossiae was really a different species from C. labiata. He lacked the important dynamic or living elements in his description, like flowering season, that would have done this. Hooker’s description of C. mossiae as a new species, however, was a landmark in the botany of the large-flowered Cattleya species because it established a precedent for all the species that came after it. Cat-tleya mossiae enabled botanists to claim species status for plants that were so similar that the old rules of botany were inadequate to describe them. Hooker’s C. mossiae said loud and clear that not every large-flowered lavender Cattleya discovered in the jungles of South America was a variety of C. labiata.
When grown in temperate climates like Europe and the United States, of course, C. mossiae has other dynamic chracteristics that are not like C. labiata. After completing its growth, C. labiata rests less than a month before sending up flower buds. Cattleya mossiae, in comparison, rests almost six months before forming buds. Cattleya mossiae’s fragrance also differs from C. labiata’s — a fundamental characteristic in separating species because it suggests a different pollinating insect. Cattleya mossiae has a strong, flowery fragrance, while that of C. labiata is more delicate and muted.
After C. mossiae, the discovery of the large-flowered Cattleya species was something of a circus ride. The collector Josef von Warscewicz was able to find almost any orchid in the jungle, but he seemed unable to get them back to civilization. In 1848, he found his own namesake, Cattleya warscewiczii in Medellín, Colombia, but managed to lose all the plants. Only the dried specimens reached his friend, a young German botanist named Heinrich Reichenbach. When Warscewicz discovered Cattleya dowiana in Costa Rica in 1850 he lost both the plants and the dried specimens. People doubted his glowing description of the species until it was rediscovered 15 years later in 1865 by Arce. James Bateman, who described C. dowiana in 1866, actually said he could not really swear it was a new species — so much for intestinal fortitude and botanical conviction. Then there was Cattleya trianaei, which turned up in 1850. Cattleya trianaei was imported and sold in large quantities by 1855 by Jean Jules Linden’s Belgian firm, L’Horticulture Internationale. Linden gave it the name C. trianaei so he could sell it, but it took him until 1860 to convince his friend Reichenbach to describe it as a new species.
During these years, botanists were so busy telling each other what was not a large-flowered Cattleya species that they were often unable to determine what was. Uninhibited by academic thinking, horticulturists developed a good system to separate the species based on the plant’s live growing and flowering habits, but they made the mistake of leaving botanical classification to the botanists. As a result, the species continued to change in rank, drifting from variety to species to subvariety for most of the 19th century. John Lindley established the genus Cattleya with C. labiata, then, after describing C. maxima, refused to add any more large-flowered species to the genus from then on until his death in 1865. Heinrich Reichenbach realized the importance of what he called “organic differences” (flowering season, growth and flowering cycles and fragrance) between the species, but was too intimidated by Lindley’s legacy to push the idea. In a final act of contempt for his critics, Reichenbach placed his entire orchid herbarium off limits to botanists for 25 years after his death, so a new generation of botanists could take an objective look at things.
GROWTH AND FLOWERING CYCLES Although Reichenbach could not tell it from the dried specimens he received from Warscewicz, a major difference between C. warscewiczii and C. labiata or C. mossiae was its flowering habit. Both C. labiata and C. mossiae complete their growths, then rest a month or more before flowering. Cattleya warscewiczii, however, flowers before its new growth is completed, and the flower buds emerge from the sheath while the pseudobulb is still actively growing.
These growth and flowering patterns of the large-flowered Cattleya species can have significant botanical value in describing the species. The 17 species can be divided into two groups based on whether they have a resting period after completing their new growth or they do not rest. They can be divided further based on how long they rest or, if they do not do so, whether the buds emerge from the sheath before the new growth is mature, or whether they appear as tiny buds in the sheath at maturity of the pseudobulb.
At times, the artificial rules of botany severely inhibit our ability to evaluate nature, and the large-flowered Cattleya species are a good example of this. It was unnecessary to drag these species through 100 years of botanical uncertainty, when the people who grew them in the mid-1800s had already answered all the questions on how they were different, and why they should be separate species.
FRAGRANCE We have not yet found a way to describe fragrances with simple words, but if you grow the large-flowered Cattleya species, you need no other characteristic to identify them. They all have lovely, distinct fragrances that are unique to each species. This is another wonderful benefit these species offer, for they can make your home smell like an ever-changing fragrant flower garden every day of the year.
It is difficult to say too many positive things about the large-flowered Cattleya species. No two of their large, showy flowers in enchanting shades of lavender are, like people, ever exactly alike. They are one of the most feminine flowers in the whole realm of orchids, with a thin, delicate substance that is glistening and fragile. The various large-flowered Cattleya species flower year round and all have delightful fragrances. If you really get to know them, they will tell you the season of the year and sometimes even the day of the week.
I think the greatest compliment the large-flowered Cattleya species have received is that in the major countries where they grow wild they have been named the national flower. These are countries where literally thousands of different orchids grow wild — orchids from a wide range of genera — yet it is C. mossiae that is the national flower of Venezuela, and C. trianaei that is the national flower of Colombia, not a species of Phragmipedium, Sobralia or Miltoniopsis.
The large-flowered Cattleya has always been called the queen of the orchid world and, after passing through two centuries of popularity, the queen still reigns over the whole year with a friendly grace and a timeless beauty.
An Orchid Myth
Many have heard the story that Cattleya labiata was discovered by accident when it arrived in England as packing material around some ferns. William Cattley, the story goes, threw the packing material under the bench in his stove house and, atonishingly, the packing material flowered as C. labiata.
This myth grew out of an article written in 1893 by Frederick Boyle, entitled “The Lost Orchid” in which Boyle observed, with typical British humor, that William Swainson, the discoverer of C. labiata, probably did not know himself where C. labiata grew and that “The orchids fell in his way — possibly collected in distant parts by some poor fellow who died at Rio. Swainson picked them up, and used them to pack his lichens.”
In 1893, no one really knew where Swainson had collected C. labiata, but Boyle’s bit of fun and nonsense was taken seriously by future writers, who molded it into the grand myth described above. It was not until 1900 that Swainson’s written account of his journey through Brazil in 1817 and 1818 was discovered and the facts exposed. As it turned out, Swainson discovered C. labiata in Pernambuco, Brazil, not Rio de Janeiro, and, as he saw the plants in full bloom, he knew they were magnificent. He knew William Cattley would like them, and Cattley took good care of the plants on their arrival in Barnet.
— A.A. Chadwick.