Cattleya eldorado

The Old-Gold Kid

Deep in the tangled jungles of tropical Brazil, among the many wandering tributaries of the Amazon Basin, lies the fabled land of El Dorado. The appetites of the Spanish conquistadors for the elusive riches of this “Land of Gold,” was worth risking a kingdom — or even their lives — to find. For the plant hunters of the mid-1800s, El Dorado was the realm of stinging insects, biting ants, bloodsucking bats, swarms of flies, clouds of mosquitoes, malaria, dysentery and the promise of the golden treasure of a new Cattleya species.

Cattleya eldorado

Into this jungle in 1866 plunged the orchid collector Gustav Wallis as he explored the low-lying areas where the waters of the Rio Negro pour into the mighty Amazon River. It was here that Wallis encountered an unknown Cattleya species scattered among the branches of the macucus trees, its pale lavender-pink pet-als and orange lip reflecting sunlight between the gently moving leaves of the trees.

Wallis was collecting orchids for Jean Linden’s orchid company, L’Horticulture Internationale, in Brussels. It was exciting, often death-defying work to be collectors hunting tropical orchids. They usually made a nominal wage for their efforts, while the company that employed them was highly rewarded when the plants they found were the first of a species to be introduced into European horticulture. Jean Linden was particularly fortunate when Wallis sent him a large shipment of the new Cattleya species. Not only was it different from any other known Cattleya, but Linden received enough plants to cover all his expenses and make a handsome profit as well. In 1867, Linden had more than 700 plants of the new species in bloom to select from for his display in Paris. Exhibited plants, of course, must have a name, so Linden casually christened the new species Cattleya eldorado to orient his customers to its native home in the land of gold in the steaming Amazon jungle.

The Paris Show of 1867 was a huge success for Linden and his new C. eldorado, and the horticultural world embraced the new species with such excitement that no one seemed concerned that C. eldorado had not been described botanically as a new species. The nearest thing to a botanical description appeared in 1869 when Van Houtte published a full-color picture of it in his Flore de Serres et des Jardin de Europe, along with a few flattering comments in French by Monsieur Linden about the flower’s colors. The picture was printed exactly to size for both the flowers and the plant itself and showed the identifying color pattern of the lip. It was not a description in the accepted sense, but, because a picture is often worth a thousand words, particularly botanical Latin words, it was sufficient to establish the uniqueness of the new plants. It was certainly clear that Van Houtte pictured C. eldorado as we know it today.

In 1870, in L’Illustration Horticole, Linden and André published another life-size picture, again in full color, of a C. eldorado plant and flowers under the name “Cattleya Eldorado ‘Splendens’” — ‘Splendens’ being a clonal name for a particularly fine form. This picture was accompanied by a detailed description in French of the flowers, including color, size of segments and crisping and a comparison of the plant with Van Houtte’s 1869 C. eldorado. It also compared C. eldorado with some of the large-flowered Cattleya labiata-type species. Despite all this, a botanist recently proposed changing the name C. eldorado to the dreadful, tongue-twisting Cattleya trichopiliochila because a Dr. Joao Barbosa Rodriques in 1877 (10 years after C. eldorado was introduced and named by Linden), published a more botanically correct description of the species. Linden, of course, was not the world’s best botanist, but he was certainly a lot better than Rodriques when it came to cattleyas. Rodriques was notorious for giving improper new names to many old established Cattleya species. In his book Genera et Species Orchidearum Novarum, published in 1877 and 1881, Rodriques renamed Cattleya walkeriana as Cattleya princeps. He renamed Cattleya warneri as Cattleya trilabiata; he renamed Cat-tleya velutina as Cattleya alotacea, and the light-colored form of Cattleya velutina he called Cattleya fragrans — and, of course, he renamed Cattleya eldorado as Cattleya trichopiliochila. Fortunately, neither the horticultural nor the botanical community has considered replacing the name C. eldorado with C. trichopiliochila. Cattleya eldorado is clearly the proper name for this species.

Cattleya eldorado is noteworthy for its lovely range of subtle colors. The most common form has pale lavender-pink sepals and petals with an orange-throated lip. The orange disc in the throat is circular in shape, edged in white, and there is lavender or purple across the bottom edge on the lip. The color pattern of the lip is distinctive to the species. Alba forms, which are rare in most Cattleya species, are not at all rare in C. eldorado and the alba form is the one most often pictured in orchid books. The alba forms also have some of the largest and best-shaped flowers in the species — another unusual characteristic for a Cattleya. One of the first albas discovered was so outstanding, it was actually described by A. Ducos in L’Illustration Horticole in 1876 as a new species and given the name Cattleya virginalis. This was, of course, later corrected to C. eldorado ‘Virginalis’ but it reflected the unusually fine appearance of the flowers over the ordinary C. eldorado. In 1882, another beautiful alba was described as a new species, Cattleya wallisii, by none other than the botanist H.G. Reichenbach. Reichenbach, like a true botanist, defended his mistake for years over the objections of numerous horticulturists. Perhaps the most impressive C. eldorado alba ever discovered, the clone ‘Crocata’, was pictured in Sander’s magnificent book, Reichenbachia, as an example of an unusually large and well-shaped flower born on a larger than normal plant.

Although alba forms of C. eldorado are more common than usual, the semialba form is quite rare. Semialba C. eldorado are attractive because the white petals seem to accentuate the white fringe around the orange disc in the lip. Albescens and concolor forms of C. eldorado are also much more common than in other Cattleya species. Cattleya eldorado’s extensive range of coloring includes coeruleas, medium lavenders and even dark lavender flowers, some of which are quite gorgeous. The bright orange disc in the lip again seems to accentuate and enhance the beauty of these darker forms. Linden often wrote of the remarkable hues and tones of color in C. eldorado flowers. He thought that no two plants were colored alike, and a group of flowering plants produced a kaleidoscope effect. Some of the best pictures I have seen of C. eldorado flowers in recent years are in Francisco Miranda’s excellent book Orchids from the Brazilian Amazon.

Cattleya eldorado is one of the smaller-growing Cattleya species. The pseudobulbs are usually only 3 to 5 inches tall (plus a 4- to 6-inch-tall leaf), and a robust flowering-size plant is normally comfortable in a 4-inch clay pot. Most flowers of C. eldorado are only half the size of a C. labiata and have relatively narrow petals, but the back sepals normally stand upright, giving the flower a pleasing appearance. Cattleya eldorado produces only two or three flowers on a flower spike, although four and five flowers do occur. The flowers of C. eldorado have excellent lasting qualities and stay in bloom for me for five and six weeks, sometimes beating Cattleya trianaei for longevity. They also have a very appealing sweet fragrance.

Cattleya eldorado was hybridized with many of the other Cattleya and Laelia species in the early days of breeding, but the results did not stimulate hybridizers to continue with it to any great extent. Cattleya eldorado’s hybrid with Cattleya bicolor (Cattleya Iridescens), and its hybrid with Cattleya dowiana (Cattleya Lady Ingram) have produced some interesting colors and a few book, Reichenbachia, as an example of an unusually large and well-shaped flower born on a larger than normal plant.

Although alba forms of C. eldorado are more common than usual, the semialba form is quite rare. Semialba C. eldorado are attractive because the white petals seem to accentuate the white fringe around the orange disc in the lip. Albescens and concolor forms of C. eldorado are also much more common than in other Cattleya species. Cattleya eldorado’s extensive range of coloring includes coeruleas, medium lavenders and even dark lavender flowers, some of which are quite gorgeous. The bright orange disc in the lip again seems to accentuate and enhance the beauty of these darker forms. Linden often wrote of the remarkable hues and tones of color in C. eldorado flowers. He thought that no two plants were colored alike, and a group of flowering plants produced a kaleidoscope effect. Some of the best pictures I have seen of C. eldorado flowers in recent years are in Francisco Miranda’s excellent book Orchids from the Brazilian Amazon.

Cattleya eldorado is one of the smaller-growing Cattleya species. The pseudobulbs are usually only 3 to 5 inches tall (plus a 4- to 6-inch-tall leaf), and a robust flowering-size plant is normally comfortable in a 4-inch clay pot. Most flowers of C. eldorado are only half the size of a C. labiata and have relatively narrow petals, but the back sepals normally stand upright, giving the flower a pleasing appearance. Cattleya eldorado produces only two or three flowers on a flower spike, although four and five flowers do occur. The flowers of C. eldorado have excellent lasting qualities and stay in bloom for me for five and six weeks, sometimes beating Cattleya trianaei for longevity. They also have a very appealing sweet fragrance.

Cattleya eldorado

Cattleya eldorado was hybridized with many of the other Cattleya and Laelia species in the early days of breeding, but the results did not stimulate hybridizers to continue with it to any great extent. Cattleya eldorado’s hybrid with Cattleya bicolor (Cattleya Iridescens), and its hybrid with Cattleya dowiana (Cattleya Lady Ingram) have produced some interesting colors and a few hybrids have been made using these two parents. Generally, however, the species has not been too popular for hybridizing because of its narrow petals and small size. Cattleya eldorado and Cattleya superba (= violacea) interbreed in the jungle to produce the natural hybrid Cattleya xbrymeriana.

Cattleya eldorado is, without doubt, the rarest of the Cattleya species in cultivation in the United States today. Jones and Scully in Miami, Florida, sold meristems of a lavender concolor clone some 20 years ago, and this is about the only plant I see in modern collections — and even this has become scarce. While C. eldorado was a darling of the 1880s and 1890s, it seems to have been eclipsed by the large-flowered C. labiata-type species after the turn of century. The large-flowered cattleyas were more spectacular in size and shape, and more suited to use by private and commercial exhibitors. A single C. mossiae plant, with four or five 8-inch flowers on a spike, was eye-catching by itself, while C. eldorado made a good display only as a group of plants.

While C. eldorado, to my knowledge, is not available from commercial growers in the United States, it is for sale from several Brazilian orchid firms. Seedlings of sib crosses are not too expensive, but flowering-size plants and good color forms can cost a king’s ransom and are not for the weak of heart or pocketbook.

An old saying reminds us that, “All that glitters is not gold,” but, if it is a Cattleya, and you find it growing wild along the Rio Negro in Brazil, and it glitters in lavender, orange, pink and white in the sunlight, it may well be worth its weight in gold. So the fabled land of El Dorado has, after all, produced something more than mythical gold. It has produced the solid-gold Cattleya — Cattleya eldorado.

How to Grow Cattleya eldorado

CATTLEYA eldorado was looked upon as a difficult cattleya to grow when it was first imported into Europe in the 1870s, and it apparently took growers some time to learn its requirements.

Because C. eldorado is a native of the hot tropical forests at sea level in Brazil, it requires more heat than the typical mountain cloud-forest Cattleya species like Cattleya warscewiczii, Cattleya trianaei and Cattleya mendelii. A night temperature of 68 to 70 F is more to its liking than the normal 58 to 60F night temperature of most other cattleyas. Cattleya eldorado also needs a clear-cut rest period after flowering and should receive a minimum of water during the winter months when it is essentially dormant.

Cattleya eldorado will begin growing in the late winter and early spring in the United States. As the new growth matures, you should see buds forming in the sheath and the plant should flower in early summer. After it flowers, it will begin to root and can be repotted at this time. After repotting, just enough water should be given to the plants to draw the emerging roots down into the potting medium. If this watering is done carefully, the plants should be well rooted by the time they go into dormancy in the autumn. Cattleya eldorado benefits from a hot, humid atmosphere when it is actively growing in spring and early summer. It performs best when given lots of sun and air at all times of the year. It must have a dry period while it is resting during the fall and early winter if you want it to thrive. — A.A. Chadwick.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Francisco Miranda for use of his photographs, which originally appeared in his book Orchids from the Brazilian Amazon.