I grew up with Cattleya orchids all over my house. My
father, who had been growing orchids since 1945, had two greenhouses attached to the house. He raised exclusively Cattleyas, the ‘Queen of the Orchids’.
He had collected all the Cattleya species that were known to exist – from the relatively common Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya trianaei (the National Flowers of Venuzela and Columbia respectively) to the rare and almost unheard of Cattleya eldorado and Cattleya quadricolor. In addition, he had all the color forms of each species: lavenders, blushes, albas, semi-albas, and blues. Most of the plants were one of a kind, having been obtained from South American jungles long ago.
Packages were arriving all the time – new acquisitions from all over the world, mostly ‘trades’ from other orchid ‘addicts’.
The plants were sent ‘bare root’ which means they were not in pots but rather wrapper in newspaper to protect the exposed leaves and roots. Sometimes the boxes had been in transit for weeks and the pseudobulbs were badly dehydrated and broken. Yet they were so important to my father.
His greenhouses also held thousands of ‘babies’ – seedlings from the hybrids he had created. The parents had been ‘self pollinated’ or ‘cross pollinated’ using a simple toothpick to create improved botanical strains.
His seed sowing techniques were legendary. He perfected a clever method of planting tiny orchid seeds on his kitchen table without the help of a sterilized room or fancy laboratory equipment. Instead he used a pressure cooker, beakers, agar, and other off the shelf items. Sure, he had some contamination but there were still ‘millions’ of successfully germinated seeds to replant.
He might grow 300 of the most vigorous seedlings and bloom them all – a process that takes 7 years. Along the way, he would take a picture of each blossom, measure and describe them, keep the best 10 or so, then give the rest away. His interest was purely academic. He wasn’t interested in ribbons or awards, just the intrinsic beauty and fascination of the hobby.
I watched each week as new cattleyas bloomed and others faded away. Year round, there were dozens in bloom at all times – each one having a story associated with it’s history, how it was acquired, or how it reminds my father about a moment in his life – the birth of his daughter, his wedding day, or the first day of spring.
An amazing fact about Cattleyas is there is always one in bloom every single day of the year. Though the plants only bloom once a year and the flowers may only last a few weeks, a well designed collection gives year round enjoyment.
During the cut flower era of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, orchids became quite fashionable and were worn for every event that was deemed ‘special’.
Corsages became the ‘Fifth Star’ of a lady’s attire to accompany a beautiful gown, fancy hairdo, high heels, and a pearl necklace.
The word ‘Cattleya’ was often mispronounced as ‘cat-a-LEE-na’ like the flying boat of the second World War or ‘cat-ta-LAAY-ah’ which sounded like a maiden from a south sea island. Eventually, the generic word ‘orchid’ was used to describe all cattleyas and the term ‘orchid color’ to describe the lovely lavender shade of a cattleya flower.
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