Cattleya percivaliana

A perennial Christmas present

I cannot imagine Christmas without Cattleya percivaliana. Its aromatic fragrance and deep, rich, purple coloring are as much a part of my holiday as bayberry candles, pine cones and the aroma of fresh-baked mince pie.

Cattleya perciviliana

It wasn’t too many years ago that you could buy flowering plants of C. pervivaliana at the local florist shop for Christmas. When I was a teenager in the 1940s, I earned my Christmas money selling C. percivaliana plants to these shops. I bought newly established, imported plants in sheath in September for $2.50 each and sold them in flower in December for $5. No matter how many plants I bought in September, I never had enough to meet the demand in December. It seemed no one wanted a poinsettia when they could have an orchid for the same price.

Cattleya pecivaliana was a late arrival on the orchid scene compared with most of the other important Cattleya species. It took 46 years after the discovery of Cattleya mossiae and more than 20 years after the discovery of Cattleya trianaei, Cattleya warscewiczii and Cattleya lueddemanniana before someone found C. percivaliana. By the time it appeared, the orchid world was more than ready to receive it. Growers were desperate to find a cattleya to fill the flowering gap between Cattleya labiata, which finished blooming in November, and C. trianaei, which did not begin flowering until January. Cattleya percivaliana flowered during this empty December period and orchidists everywhere responded with excitement and pleasure. Frederick Sander of the English orchid firm Sander’s Ltd., proclaimed elatedly that “with the discovery of Cattleya percivaliana and Cattleya gaskelliana, we now have cattleyas flowering the whole year.” It was all very wonderful.

The glow, however, did not last long. As the newly discovered species began flowering in hundreds of greenhouses throughout Europe and the United States, people soon discovered that, despite its good shape, rich dark coloring and desirable flowering season, C. percivaliana produced flowers that were only half the size of the other major Cattleya species. The disappointment was intense, and Sir Trevor Lawrence, president of the Royal Horticultural Society, chastised Frederick Sander publicly for misleading his customers with such high praise for the plant. In disgust, Lawrence simply referred to C. percivaliana as “mossaie minor.”

Cattleya percivaliana was discovered by William Arnold, a collector for Sander’s Ltd., when he was traveling in a remote area of Venezuela. Arnold wrote to Sander in December 1881 saying he had stumbled upon a beautiful Cattleya that he believed to be new and was sending 20 cases of plants back to England and 10 cases to Sander’s associate in the United States. When the plants arrived, Frederick Sander coaxed his friend, the botanist H.G. Reichenbach to write a botanical description of the plant so he could begin selling it as a new Cattleya species.

Reichenbach, with some reluctance and considerable philosophical comment, formally presented C. percivaliana to the horticultural world in the June 17, 1882 The Gardeners’ Chronicle (page 796). In his description, Reichenbach lamented that he had only 20 dried flowers, two nonflowering plants, and a few notes from Frederick Sander on which to base a description and place C. percivaliana in the botanical scheme of things. Reichenbach ended his lament by saying, “If a young botanist had the time and means, he might do a grand work traveling for the purpose of studying Cattleya labiata,” and with this melancholy observation, Reichenbach described C. percivaliana as “Cattleya labiata variety percivaliana.” Frederick Sander was furious. By calling C. percicvaliana a variety of C. labiata, Reichenbach had cut the commercial value of Sander’s plants in half.

The following year James O’Brian, writing in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, raised C. percivaliana to species rank and Sander’s paid C.percivaliana the ultimate compliment by making it the first Cattleya pictured in their famous orchid book, Reichenbachia.

Reichenbach named C. percivaliana to honor Mr. R.P. Percival of Birkdale, Southport, England. Mr Percival was an enthusiastic private grower of orchids- a hobbyist, described by his friends as “the genial Birkdale orchidist.”

Unlike many people whose names appear in orchid nomenclature, Percival took his namesake orchid seriously. When Reichenbach was criticized for writing too many nice things about C. percivaliana, Percival sent Reichenbach a bouquet of flowers from his best clones to reassure Reichenbach that C. percicvaliana was indeed a lovely thing. Percival exhibited C.percivaliana at flower shows everywhere and in 1884 received two First Class Certificates from the Royal Horticultural Society, one for a large, richly colored clone, and another for an alba clone.

As a Cattleya species, C. percivaliana is distinct and easy to identify. Frederick Sander, its greatest promoter, felt no one could mistake it for any other species and “a boy could pick it out blindfolded in a greenhouse.” Saying this, Sander must have assumed the boy would smell it, because its fragrance is unique and you have only to smell it once to be able to identify it from then on.

Cattleya percivaliana’s fragrance is usually described as “spicy” and most people like it. But, not everyone does, and it is the only Cattleya species about which there is any doubt at all about the fragrance’s being pleasant and desirable.

C. perciviliana ‘Christmas Cheer’

Another important identifying feature of C. percivaliana is its lip color. The lip typically has an intense deep orange color in the throat that seems to underlay even the deep purple of the lower labellum. Sander described this color as having “extraordinary richness,” and Reichenbach likened it to “a Persian carpet in which dazzling colors prevail.” The lip color is an important reason why C.percivaliana was used in early hybridizing, but unfortunately, the color did not produce the same effect in the hybrids as it did in the species itself, so most C. percivaliana hybrids were not too successful. Even its natural hybrid with C. mossiae, Cattleya Peregrine, is not an exciting event in this respect.

The only primary hybrid of C. percivaliana that has received significant recognition, and is really noteworthy, is Cattleya Leda (percivaliana x dowiana). Cattleya percivaliana has good shape and rich dark color. Add to this C. dowiana’s well-known effect of intensifying the color of other purple cattleya flowers, and C. Leda becomes not only a beautiful flower in its own right, but also a promising parent for dark purple hybrids. Cattleya Leda is a parent of such famous dark crosses as Brassocattleya Hartland (Bc. Hannibal x Leda) and Laeliocattleya Hyperion (Lc. General Maude x Leda). Its cross with Laeliocattleya Cavalese- Laeliocattleya Bloody Mary- gives a good description of the purple-red color it can produce in its hybrids.

Cattleya percivaliana was not much of a success in the cut-flower market of the 1930s, 40s and 50s because a single flower was too small to make a good corsage. Only a few fine clones with large flowers like C. percivaliana ‘Summit’, AM-FCC/AOS, were grown for cut flowers by such growers as Lager and Hurrell, who had at least 200 plants of the clone for Christmas cut flowers the last time I saw them.

As a pot plant, however, C. percivaliana was ideal. It was a relatively small plant that produced two or three flowers per lead and a plant in a 5-inch pot made a beautiful display for the holiday season.

Although C. percivaliana is thought of as a small cattleya, there have been clones that had a 7-inch petal spread, but these have been very rare. The typical flower is about 4 ½ inches across, compared with 6 or 8 inches across for the typical C. mossiae.

Although there was a fine clone of C. percivaliana named ‘Grandiflora’, AM/RHS (1916), that term is applied today to any large-flowered clones, particularly those with good shape and a wider than normal lip.

Cattleya percivaliana produces some of the better-shaped albas of the Cattleya species and John Lager had one that he considered as good for shape and size as his famous lavender ‘Summit’, AM-FCC/AOS. His alba clone, however, had no clonal name and was apparently lost after his death. In addition to R.P. Percival’s alba that received an FCC/RHS in 1884, the clone ‘Lady Holford’ received an FCC/RHS in 1913.

The most famous semialba is C. percivaliana ‘Charlesworth’, FCC/RHS (1913), which has a classic deep-reddish-purple lip that makes a striking constast against the white sepals and petals. The commonly available semialbas today, like C. percivaliana ‘Jewel’ lack the intense coloration of ‘Charlesworth’s’ lip, but are still a nice addition to any Christmas arrangement.

Cattleya perciviliana

The lavender forms of C. percivaliana have lips that vary in color from almost black-purple to medium orange-purple, and there are, of course, pale lavender albescens and concolors. The lip is usually narrow except in the Grandiflora forms. The most famous lavender clone is undoubtedly ‘Summit’, AM-FCC/AOS, which has a squarer shape than most other clones of C. percivaliana. Even the very dark, narrow-lipped C. percivaliana, however, are wonderful flowers.

If I could ask Santa Claus to bring all my orchid friends one holiday gift, it would be a plant of Cattleya percivaliana, filled to the brim with a dozen rich purple flowers- a plant that could stand on their coffee tables by their Christmas trees and welcome holiday guests like an outstretched hand of the genial R.P. Percival of times gone by.

How to Grow Cattleya Percivaliana

Cattleya percivaliana is one of the easiest members of the Cattleya genus to grow and is normally a vigorous, trouble-free plant. It begins growing in late winter to early spring in the United States and will usually make two growths in succession. Both growths will flower at the same time in late November into December. A sturdy, well-established plant will stay in flower at least four weeks.

Cattleya percivaliana grows in nature at relatively high altitudes from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. It is often a lithophyte found on rocks and receives considerable exposure to the sun. Under greenhouse conditions at sea level, however, it will require at least 30 percent shade in the summer to prevent the leaves from burning. Cattleya percivaliana requires lots of sun and air to obtain the best growth and the most flowers. Repotting should be done in the spring before the plant is in active growth.

Because of its vigorous growing habit and small size, C. percivaliana makes a great exhibition plant if potted on into the next larger pot without disturbing the rootball. Under these circumstances, you can have a plant in a 6-inch pot with 10 or 12 flowers- and you can have it for Christmas.