The Merry Sisters of Spring
On a visit to Costa Rica last spring, we saw first hand what has become the fate of native cattleya species around the world.
When a vagabond plant collector named William Swainson sent a bundle of strange lavender-flowered plants thought to be parasitic to the Glasgow Botanic Garden in 1817, he opened the door to a flood of excitement that would engulf the horticultural world for the rest of the century.
James O’Brien, one of the most famous horticulturists of the late 1800s, was an expert on orchids, particularly the large-flowered Cattleya species. He was secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Orchid Committee, advisor to the editors of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, and frequently assisted the botanist H.G. Reichenbach in his botanical deliberations. When Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, awarded the first Victoria Medal of Honor in Horticulture (VMH), she presented it to James O’Brien.
One of the great things about Mother Nature is her eagerness to experiment with her many offspring to help them survive in an ever-changing world. Now and then she even encourages two closely related species to trespass on each other’s territory and in the process creates a natural hybrid between them.
The mid 1800s was the great age of discovery for the large-flowered Cattleya species. The first species were found by private individuals and government workers living or traveling in South America who sent the plants back to horticultural friends in Europe. As the age progressed, however, most of the species were discovered by professional plant hunters working for large commercial orchid companies.
Greenhouses just sparkle in July and August in the glare of the hot summer sun, and the landscape seems to radiate a yellow glow. Bathed in this golden embrace, the flowers of the great cattleya species, Cattleya dowiana hang like a yellow and burgundy necklace about the rays of the sun.
Cattleya dowiana is one of the most beautiful of the cattleya species and has been a treasure for collectors since its discovery in 1850. It is the only cattleya species of the Cattleya labiata group that has yellow sepals and petals, and with its dark crimson-purple lip veined with gold, it is magnificent.
For over 24 years after its discovery in 1866, Cattleya dowiana reigned supreme in the genus as the only yellow-petal species. It was considered the most beautiful cattleya of its day by far, and it soon became the species most widely used in breeding the large flowered hybrids.