Cattleya maxima

The Peekaboo Orchid

Cattleya maxima typical

In 1777 the British forces in North America under General Howe were too busy chasing George Washington around Pennsylvania to have much interest in the plant life that grew on the American continent. The Spanish, on the other hand, had no pressing battles for their conquistadors to fight, and had settled down to the pleasures of nature and were quietly exploring the botanical wonderland of their colonies in South America.

As part of this exploration, the Spanish Government sent two botanists, Ruiz and Pavon, to investigate the quinine forests of what is now Peru and Ecuador. Being good botanists, Ruiz and Pavon also sampled the flora they encountered on their travels and sent herbarium specimens back to Spain. One of these dried specimens was of a lavender orchid they found in Ecuador. Had Ruiz and Pavon been able to publish a description of the lavender orchid, it might have been named something other than Cattleya, but Madrid was a long way from South America, and their specimens languished in a literary dungeon in Spain, while Washington defeated Howe at the Battle of Trenton and went on to serve two terms as president of a new republic.

Eventually, Ruiz and Pavon’s specimens were sold to Aylmer Bourke Lambert, an author of several horticultural and botanical books. Lambert recognized the unique character of the lavender orchid and took the dried specimens to John Lindley who, in 1831, pronounced them a new species and gave them the name Cattleya maxima (Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants, 1831, page 116).

The dried herbarium specimens were the only evidence European horticulturists had of C. maxima until 1842 when Hartweg, a collector for the Horticultural Society of London, found plants in the immense forests that border the Rio Grande near Malacotes, Ecuador. Hartweg sent plants back to England, where they flowered in 1844, and Lindley wrote another description of C. maxima in the Botanical Register of that year. Then, for some strange reason, Hartweg’s plants quietly disappeared from cultivation, and it was another 10 years before C. maxima appeared again in Europe.

This, however, is only half the story, for there are two types of C. maxima. The plants collected by Hartweg were the first live C. maxima to reach Europe. These had plump, short, crowded pseudobulbs with relatively short upright leaves and three to five dark lavender flowers on a flower stem. This type is found on the western slopes of the Andes from Southern Colombia into Northern Peru and Ecuador at elevations of 3,000 to almost 6,000 feet. It is referred to as the “short pseudobulb” or “upland” C. maxima and was the only C. maxima in cultivation until 1864. In 1864, Gustav Wallis, a collector for Jean Linden in Brussels, sent Linden some truly giant plants, up to 2 feet tall with 12 to 21 flowers on a spike, which he collected at sea level in Ecuador. These tall C. maxima had pale to medium lavender flowers with none of the intense dark coloring of the short-pseudobulb type. Despite their beauty, however, Wallis’ tall-pseudobulb, lowland C. maxima again disappeared from cultivation in less than 10 years. It wasn’t until 1894, 30 years later, that a large number of the tall-pseudobulb, lowland C. maxima arrived in Europe and the two forms of C. maxima finally established themselves in European horticulture.

Cattleya maxima flowers in late autumn in the United States, from mid-November to early December. It blooms after C. labiata has finished flowering and before C. percivaliana begins. Cattleya maxima has a lovely fragrance, and all the color forms of the large-flowered Cattleya species. There are albas, semialbas, lovely pale pinkish-lavender forms — particularly in the tall-pseudobulb, lowland types — and the intense dark purple of the short- pseudobulb, upland types. There are also some attractive coerulea clones. The name ‘Backhouse’ is sometimes loosely and incorrectly used to refer to the short- pseudobulb, dark clones because Messrs. Backhouse & Sons of York, England had an outstanding rich dark clone back in the late 1800s that was quite famous.

Cattleya maxima is one of the few species of the large-flowered cattleyas that are easy to identify from their color. Cattleya maxima has a characteristic yellow stripe down the center of the lip in all color forms including the albas. The bright yellow stripe is quite striking against the dark purple flowers of the short-pseudobulb type, as can be seen in the above photograph of the clone ‘Belle’, HCC/AOS.

Much has been written about the name maxima that John Lindley gave the species because it does not seem to fit the plant. Veitch, in his Manual of Orchidaceous Plants in 1887, described it as “scarcely appropriate, as most of the labiata varieties have still larger flowers.” Most people today, including some writers, assume that John Lindley gave C. maxima its name to reflect the tall pseudobulbs and many-flowered bloom spikes of the lowland form, because these are some of the largest heads of flowers of any of the Cattleya species. Unfortunately, the facts do not support this conclusion. There was no way to tell from Ruiz and Pavon’s herbarium specimens how tall the pseudobulb was, since it had been cut off 1 inch below the leaves. The flower spike was also not complete. It was only 8 inches long with the top broken off, and it showed evidence of only five flowers. No one would name a plant maxima based on this evidence. On the other hand, the single dried flower that was preserved was 7 inches across, which is not only large for C. maxima, but made it the largest Cat-tleya flower Lindley had seen up to that time. The year 1831 was early in the discovery of the Cattleya species. Only five species — four small-flowered bifoliates (Cattleya forbesii, Cattleya intermedia, Cattleya guttata and Cattleya loddigesii) and one large-flowered one (Cattleya labiata) — had been described. The bifoliate cattleyas had flowers no more than 4 inches across, and Lindley’s drawing of C. labiata, that he used to describe the species in 1821, shows a flower that was only two-thirds normal size because the plant was so poorly grown. In 1831 then, a C. maxima with 7-inch flowers was the largest cattleya around. Even as late as 1844, Lindley said in the Botanical Register that C. maxima rivaled C. labiata and “its flowers are as large.” Cattleya maxima then, as Veitch observed, was named maxima because of the size of the flowers. The name had nothing to do with the size of the plant or flower spike. There are lots of Cattleya species, of course, that have flowers that are larger than 7 inches across, but that is now, not in 1831.

Cattleya maxima has had a variable popularity over the years, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons for its disappearance now and then from cultivation. Sander’s did not even include a picture of C. maxima in its famous Reichenbachia, although they featured most of the other important Cattleya species. Helen Adams also gave a cursory treatment to C. maxima in her series on the Cattleya species in the AOS Bulletin in the 1940s. The problem seems to be that C. maxima is thought of as a large-flowered, labiata-type Cattleya species, but it lacks the size and shape of these species. There is no round-shaped C. maxima or even anything close. The flowers are all starry and the petals often come forward. As far as I know, C. maxima was never grown for cut flowers during the 1940s and 1950s despite its attractive flowering season from Thanksgiving through early December.

Lowland Cattleya Maxima

The color of the flowers in the short- pseudobulb type seems to give the plant most of its appeal, while the large size of the plant and flower head in the tall- pseudobulb type is both an asset and a liability, depending on the amount of space a grower has to give the plant.

The only one who really glamorized C. maxima was Linden in his Lindenia, where he included pictures of two striking short-pseudobulb plants (a ‘Virginalis’ and an intensely dark clone), and two magnificent tall-pseudobulb clones, one of which, ‘Floribunda’ received a two-page spread. Linden felt the tall-pseudobulb, lowland C. maxima was the best type because of the large head of flowers that made such an impressive display. Linden, of course, was the first one to have large numbers of the lowland type for sale, so this may have colored his outlook.

Like a small child playing peekaboo in the hallway, C. maxima has poked its face into the horticultural world, only to quickly pull it back, then reappear to surprise the viewer. The beauty of the tall lowland form, with its exquisite pastel pink flowers, goes in and out of fashion as the growing space in the greenhouse shrinks and expands, while the upland C. maxima is popular when small plants with dark flowers are in fashion — as they are today.

If you look beyond the narrow-petaled flowers, however, you will see one C. maxima with a brilliant yellow stripe down the center of the lip against an intensely dark purple background on a plant that is small enough to fit on a living-room cocktail table. If you look at the other C. maxima, you will see a truly magnificent head of flowers on pseudobulbs that stand tall and grand. Either way, Cattleya maxima is one of nature’s enduring gems of the world of cattleyas.

How to Grow Cattleya maxima

ALTHOUGH both forms of Cattleya maxima, with short and tall pseudobulbs, are easy to grow, their cultural requirements are somewhat different. They both begin to grow in the spring in the United States and both flower in late November to early December, but their night temperature requirements are not the same.

As a mountain plant, the short-pseudobulb C. maxima requires the normal cattleya night temperature of 58 F, and can take temperatures down to the low 50s without problems. The tall-pseudobulb C. maxima, however, grows near sea level, where night temperatures are in the high 60s F to low 70s F. To grow the tall-pseudobulb C. maxima well, the night temperature should not fall below 65 F, so you should put them in the warmest part of the intermediate greenhouse. Day temperatures for both types of C. maxima should be about 85 F. The upland C. maxima likes more sun than the lowland, but both grow best if their leaves are light green. Both forms also benefit from lots of moving air. The upland C. maxima often has some purple pigment in the foliage, while the lowland is normally just green. To enjoy the full size of the tall pseudobulbs of the lowland C. maxima, the plant must develop a good root system, and it will help to keep the plant slightly underpotted.

I prefer to grow C. maxima in clay pots rather than on cork slabs, because the pseudobulbs seem to grow taller when grown in pots with the additional water they receive. Cattleya maxima should be repotted as soon as it makes new roots from the lead pseudobulb, and should be fertilized only when it is actively growing in the spring and summer. — A.A. Chadwick.