First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Eleanor Roosevelt

The 1930’s was a challenging time for the United States. Gone were the days of Bathtub Gin and the extravagances of The Roaring Twenties. The Great Depression left banks insolvent, businesses bankrupt, and millions of Americans without a job. Politicians could only hope that some new government program might ease the suffering and put people back to work. It was of utmost importance that elected officials appear modest and frugal.

Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady during this tumultuous period and into the Second World War. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the 32nd President and had been wheelchair bound since 1921. Together, they formed a strong political partnership. Due to his limited physical ability, she regularly made appearances and gave lectures on his behalf.

Mrs. Roosevelt was ground breaking in every respect - she was the first president’s wife to testify before a Congressional committee, the first to hold press conferences, and the first to speak before a national party convention. Her life was of such interest to the public that, for 26 years, she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “My Day”, that was read by millions. She was a strong advocate for social justice and equality and, although controversial, she is remembered as one of the notable figures of the twentieth century.

Like many First Ladies, Mrs. Roosevelt’s namesake Cattleya was not hybridized while she was in office (1933 – 1945). Some historians believe that she did not wish to display wealth and glamour at a time when the nation was in distress. Instead, her orchid is a recent development using authentic lineage from that era.

One parent of the Roosevelt orchid is Lc C.G. Roebling (L purpurata x C gaskelliana) which was named by the English commercial firm, Sanders, in 1895. Surprisingly, Sanders named the hybrid after an American businessman, Charles G. Roebling, who was president of the company that built the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling also had one of the finest orchid collections in the United States in the late 1800’s.

Roebling’s greenhouses were immense and he scored innumerable awards at horticultural societies in Massachusetts and New York. He sent expeditions into the mountains of South America in search of rare species, and his collection was estimated to have cost several hundred thousand dollars. Britain’s Orchid Review featured his extensive operation in their November 1894 issue. His Cattleya varieties alone would make present-day hobbyists envious. Mr. Clinkaberry, for whom the famous C trianaei ‘Clinkaberrianum’ is named, was Roebling’s grower. When Roebling died in 1918, his trustees sold the orchids to another well-known collector, Mrs. Frederick Dixon of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

The other parent of the Roosevelt orchid is Cattleya Undine (C intermedia x C mossiae) which was named by Sir George Holford of the famed Westonbirt House and Arboretum in 1906. Undine is a mythological water nymph and was a major stud plant for medium sized hybrids with 28 registered crosses through 1945.

The strongest influence of the four species which make up this spectacular First Lady hybrid is, undoubtedly, Laelia purpurata, which is found in the tree tops of coastal areas in Brazil.
The pseudo-bulbs of Lc Eleanor Roosevelt are tall and vigorous while the blossoms are large and open-shaped, typical of the 1930’s. Seedlings bloom at various times throughout the year and there does not appear to be a specific flowering season.

As the United States recovered from the war, Cattleya orchids hit their ‘heyday’ of corsage fashion. Mrs. Roosevelt was ‘courted’ by politicians to consider running for public office, but she chose to focus her later years on various duties within the United Nations. She traveled the world giving countless lectures and was regularly seen wearing Cattleya corsages.

We would like to thank her granddaughter, Anne Roosevelt, for assistance with this project. She resides in Maine and is President of the Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. At her request, specimens of the family hybrid were sent to her favorite horticultural venues – the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden as well as the New York Botanical Garden – where they are on public display.

Friday, November 1, 2013 - 12:00