First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Bess Truman

The 4th Mid-America Orchid Congress in the spring of 1962 must have been quite an show. Aside from the spectacular orchid displays, the weekend included a slate of big-name speakers as well as a trip to the Truman Presidential Library where the former President was expected to make an appearance.
The star-studded event was held at the historic Muehlebach hotel in downtown Kansas City. Built in 1915, the 12 story structure was frequented by celebrity guests including sitting President Harry Truman who, not surprisingly, would stay in the “Presidential Suite”. (The posh room was subsequently named after him).
Speakers included Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Vaughn who would later donate their beautiful West Palm Beach estate to the American Orchid Society for use as the new headquarters. Another prominent orator was Dr. Robert Gillespie, curator of the prestigious Missouri Botanical Garden, which had recently hosted the 1st Annual World Orchid Congress. The lecture of the day, however, was given by John Lines, a second generation orchid grower from Signal Mountain, TN, who had a special treat in store for Mr. Truman.
John Lines father, Oliver, was legendary in the orchid world. As co-founder of Lines Orchids in 1947, his resume included stints with the orchid greenhouses of the British colonial secretary, The Rt Hon, Joseph Chamberlain, the Westonbirt estate of Sir George Holford, and the English commercial firm Charlesworths. He then moved to the United States where he was head grower of the famed Arthur Cooley collection in Pittsfield MA – a position he held for 11 years. After the Cooley collection was acquired by F.E. Dixon of Elkins Park, PA in 1925, he would become their head grower for the next 20 years.
By the time the Mid-America Orchid Congress was held, Lines Orchids was a thriving cut flower cattleya operation. John Lines had spent three years working with Clint McDade at RIvermont Orchids in Chattanooga and had selected high quality breeding stock. He especially loved semi-alba cattleyas and wrote a detailed six page article for the AOS on the subject. He traced the lineage of fine semi-albas back to their original species – C trianaei ‘Trenton’, C mossaie Reineckiana ‘Youngs’, L purpurata ‘Orchid Knoll’, C warscewiczii ‘FMB’ and ‘Bedford’, and C labiata ‘Charlesworthii’.
One hybrid that John Lines was particularly proud of making was C Clotho x C Ardmore. He describes his stud plant, C Clotho ‘Lines’ as follows - “We raised 200 plants of this cross and this is the only variety we kept. It has proven to be a fine parent and we predict it will have a great influence of future late-winter and spring flowering semi-albas.” When combined with the heavily C mossaie influenced C Ardmore, the results “show the progress made through very selective breeding.”
John Lines took his striking white with colored lip hybrid, C Clotho x C Ardmore, to the Congress that weekend. He boarded the tour bus for a 30 minute ride from Kansas City to Independence and the Truman Presidential Library. Upon arrival, John and the other orchid show attendees entered the building and were each personally greeted by the former President – a gesture that reminded everyone just how genuine the Truman’s really were.
It was at this time that John Lines informed Mr. Truman that he wanted to name this special hybrid in his honor. Mr. Truman replied, “So many things have already been named after me. Would you name it after Bess?” Thus, Cattleya Bess Truman was born.
Bess and Harry were inseparable. They attended the same schools from 5th grade through high school. She even worked as a secretary in his office while he was in the U.S. Senate.
Bess had a tremendous love of plants and, while First Lady, was honorary chair of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden Association. She reinstated the formal White House social season which had been interrupted by the war. Mrs. Truman took great interest in the planning of all events from state receptions to casual teas.
Cattleya corsages were a regular part of her ensemble. She wore them to countless functions including her “Whistle Stop” campaign appearances with her husband where he introduced her as ‘The Boss.’
Mrs. Truman connected with the everyday American and made it a point to personally respond to each of the thousands of letters that she received at the White House. She continued to visit her hometown beauty shop because she ‘saw no reason for change.’ Following her years in Washington, D.C. (1945-1953), she and her husband returned to the place they loved, Independence, Missouri.

Saturday, November 1, 2014 - 12:00