Cattleya purpurata (Laelia)

A Cattleya by Any Other Name

The large-flowered Cattleya species have suffered from a bad case of botanical heartburn for more than 150 years — and some of the mistakes of the past never seem to be corrected. For Laelia purpurata, which is really a Cattleya, things even seem to be going from bad to worse, as I see recent efforts to reclassify this wonderful large and showy species as a member of the genus Sophronitis, which is composed of miniatures (Lindleyana, 15[2]:118).


The problems of L. purpurata began in 1831 when John Lindley established the genus Laelia. In 1831, Lindley described a Mexican orchid he called Laelia grandiflora (L. speciosa today) in his book Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants. The plant had relatively short, oval-shaped pseudobulbs that were different from the tall club-shaped or spindle-shaped pseudobulbs of a typical large-flowered Cattleya. The flowers were smaller, had a cut lip and eight pollen sacs (pollinia) instead of the usual four in Cattleya species. At the time, the new genus, Laelia, seemed to make sense. The plants were just different enough to appear botanically distinct.


L. purpurata ‘Cindarosa’


Then, in 1852, Lindley described another new orchid he called Laelia purpurata. This orchid, however, came from Brazil, not Mexico, and it had tall pseudobulbs that were similar to the pseudobulbs of a large-flowered Cattleya species. It also had flowers that looked just like a large-flowered Cattleya. In fact, the only thing that made it different from a Cattleya was that its flowers had eight pollinia instead of four. Despite the plant’s being a Cattleya in virtually all vegetative and floral characteristics, Lindley pushed it into the genus Laelia because it had eight pollinia, and it has been there ever since.


Not everyone agreed with John Lindley’s decision to place L. purpurata in the genus Laelia. In the same year Lindley described his L. purpurata, Lemaire described the same orchid as Cattleya brysiana (Jard. Fleur, p. 275–276) and two years later, in 1854, J.G. Beer described it as Cattleya purpurata (Prak. Stud. Fam. Orch., p. 213). Lindley himself had already classified two similar large-flowered Brazilian species as Cattleyas, describing Cattleya crispa in 1828 (Bot. Reg. 14 t 1172) and Cattleya lobata in 1848 (Gard. Chron., 1848, p. 403). He later changed these Brazilian orchids to Laelia crispa and Laelia lobata as he got himself increasingly locked into the concept that the difference between eight and four pollinia was significant enough to justify a new genus.


The late 1800s were a turbulent time for the concept that a small difference in number of pollinia warranted establishment of a new genus. James Veitch pointedly expressed the frustration of the horticultural community in his excellent Manual of Orchidaceous Plants when he wrote in 1887 that “it is much to be regretted that the distinguished authors of the Genera Plantarum [the botanists Bentham and Hooker] should have thought fit to have still kept them [Laelia and Cat-tleya] distinct.” Veitch would have included all Laelias in the genus Cattleya, not just the large-flowered ones.


The large-flowered Brazilian Laelias are a distinct group within the present genus Laelia. They occur only in Brazil. There are none in Mexico or anywhere else in the Americas. They include primarily Laelia purpurata, Laelia crispa, Laelia lobata, Laelia grandis and Laelia tenebrosa and are usually referred to as the “Cattleyode” or Cattleya-like Laelias. Recent DNA studies (Lindleyana, 15[2]:96–114) have confirmed what has been clear for more than 100 years, that these Cattleyode Laelias are quite different from the Mexican Laelias and they do not belong in the genus Laelia. It is now time to look at these large-flowered Brazilian Laelias for what they are — large-flowered Cattleya species. The only botanical change, of course, that is needed to accomplish this, is to define the Cattleya species as we have always done, but add that a Cattleya has from four to eight pollinia.


One of the most compelling arguments for including the large-flowered Brazilian Laelias in the genus Cattleya is the ease with which they breed with the large-flowered Cattleya species,and the normal character of the flowers of the resulting hybrids. In this respect, these large-flowered Brazilian Laelias are more closely related to the large-flowered labiata-type Cattleyas than Cattleya labiata is to the bifoliate cut-lip Cattleya species, where lip and other flower distortions do occur in their hybrids. Flower distortions also occur when Sophronitis species are crossed with these Laelias. The Grand Monarch of these large-flowered Brazilian species, of course, is Laelia purpurata, which has been a parent at one time or another in more than 90 percent of all so-called Laeliocattleya hybrids.


Laelia purpurata is without doubt one of the finest of all cultivated orchids. In addition to its large showy flowers, it has one of the widest ranges of color forms. There are probably more named clones of L. purpurata than any other Laelia or Cattleya species.


L. purpurata semi alba

This says a lot when you realize that named clones of Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya trianaei number in the hundreds. Laelia purpurata has large flowers, 6 to 8 inches (15–20 cm) across, and there are usually four or five flowers on a spike. The lavender color in the lip can be a brilliant royal purple often mixed with tones of red. This color can even appear in the sepals and petals to produce a flame-colored flower in flammea types. Many lovely semialba forms exist that often have striking dark purple lips and present a gorgeous contrast in color. Semialba forms also include flowers with pink to reddish lips, and lips that are dark slate-blue. Although there are a number of pale lavender albescens forms, there are also a few true albas that are quite beautiful.


Laelia purpurata does not have the wide petals of a C. trianaei, and tends to pass this characteristic on to its hybrids. It more than makes up for this, however, by imparting the brilliant, rich colors of its labellum to the lips of its hybrids, and it is the chief contributor to the richly colored lips of most of our purple Laeliacattleya hybrids. There are also good coerulea forms; some of the best coerulea Laeliocattleyas I have seen have L. purpurata as a parent. Because of its floriferousness and the beautiful coloring of its flowers, I feel no orchid collection should be without it.

Laelia purpurata is the parent of probably the most famous primary hybrid in orchid history, Laeliocattleya Canhamiana (L. purpurata × C. mossiae). This cross, which flowers in June in the United States, was the wedding orchid of the cut-flower days, and literally tens of thousands Lc. Canhamiana were grown during the 1940s at the peak of the cut-flower era. The semialba form was the wedding orchid itself, pictured in advertisements in magazines and newspapers, and even in full color on the cover of the American Orchid Society Bulletin for December 1946, followed by four full-color pages of Lc. Canhamiana in bridal bouquets, travel corsages, hair swirls and even on a graduation diploma. Laeliocattleya Canhamiana shows the dominance of L. purpurata’s magnificent lip color, which made the semialba form so appealing. There have been many named clones of Lc. Canhamiana over the years, but the best one I have seen is an old clone named ‘King George’, which has a particularly large and beautiful lip.


Laelia purpurata is native to Santa Caterina in southern Brazil where it is so admired that it is the state flower of Santa Caterina. It is extremely popular with local Brazilian orchid growers and rare clones garner handsome prices — in the thousands of dollars. Whole orchid shows are dedicated to L. purpurata and, with its many color forms, it is a collector’s dream.


Laelia purpurata is known in the orchid world today only as Laelia purpurata. It was pictured in the famous orchid books Lindenia and Reichen-bachia, under this name, and in modern works like L.C. Menezes’ splendid book entitled Laelia purpurata, which shows a marvelous sampling of the many color forms of the species. In addition, when used as a parent in hybrids, the name L. purpurata is used by the Royal Horticultural Society’s orchid registrar, and AOS awards granted to this species are recorded under this name, too.


It is unfortunate that, as Veitch observed in 1887, Bentham and Hooker continued John Lindley’s separation of the genera, Laelia and Cattleya, but it is equally sad that Veitch did not correct the problem himself. Veitch’s Manual of Orchidaceous Plants was the most widely read authoritative work on orchids of its day, and had Veitch called the plant Cattleya purpurata instead of L. purpurata in his manual, we would not be faced with the nomenclature difficulties we have now with the large-flowered Brazilian Laelias. In 1887, most orchid growers still used the names Cattleya crispa and Cattleya lobata and totally ignored John Lindley’s attempt 30 years earlier to change these names to Laelia crispa and Laelia lobata. If Veitch had acted on his convictions instead of just wringing his hands and blaming Bentham and Hooker, there would be no problem with C. purpurata today.


Should we change the name Laelia purpurata to Cattleya purpurata now? The genus Laelia was established based on a Mexican orchid, so the Mexican Laelias will always retain the botanical priority in the use of the name Laelia. Since it is now clear that the Brazilian large-flowered Laelias do not belong in the same genus as the Mexican Laelias, the Brazilian Laelias are in a botanical wilderness and they need some informed help to place them in a happy home.


After growing these plants for 60 years, I have to agree with the horticulturists of the late 1800s who felt the Brazilian large-flowered Laelias were Cattleya species and should have always been classified that way.


If we change the Brazilian large-flowered Laelias to Cattleyas, of course, we are still faced with the problem of who really described C. purpurata first. Both Lindley and Lemaire published their descriptions of this orchid in 1852. If Lindley failed to beat Lemaire to the pressroom, which is probable, we may really be talking about Cattleya brysiana, not C. purpurata as a name for this orchid. Whether we call it Cattleya purpurata or Cattleya brysiana, however, is not too important. What is important is that we finally call it Cattleya.


How to Grow Laelia purpurata

Laelia purpurata has the same cultural requirements as the other large-flowered Cattleya species. It benefits from lots of sun and moving air and a temperature between 58–60 F (14.5–15.5 C) at night and 80–85 F (26.5–29.5 C) during the day. It usually begins sending up new growths in late summer and early autumn in the United States. These growths will be completed by mid-January or early February and buds will begin to form in the sheath after a short rest period. The plants will flower from late May into June, depending on the clone.


Give L. purpurata a few weeks’ rest after it flowers by minimizing the watering, but do not let the pseudobulbs shrivel too much. Once the plant begins to grow, it requires lots of water, particularly as the growth elongates beyond 6 inches (15 cm). Laelia purpurata can develop some really large pseudobulbs, often exceeding 20 inches (50 cm) from the base of the pseudobulb to the tip of the leaf, if grown well.
— A.A. Chadwick.

Sunday, June 1, 2003 - 12:00