First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Jacqueline Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was only 43 years old in 1960 when he became President of the United States, and he introduced a feeling of youth and excitement into the White House. His two young children were always underfoot and his young wife, Jacqueline, age 31, was a fashion statement not only in this country but overseas as well. Kennedy’s administration became known as
Camelot – the mythical realm of King Arthur’s famous Round Table and both Republicans and Democrats embraced his policies. He gave America a new aura of greatness when he announced that he would send astronauts to the moon.

Everything Jacqueline Kennedy touched seemed to acquire a feeling of glamour whether it was her long pearl necklaces, stylish pillbox hats, or elegant dresses. Simplicity ruled her wardrobe and corsages were unnecessary to enhance the effect. The only place that we find Cattleya
flowers is in her wedding bouquet as well as corsages of the bridal party.

As First Lady, she established the Office of the White House Florist, complete with an official floral decorator. She used cut orchid sprays – especially early white Phalaenopsis hybrids and standard Cymbidiums of all colors - tucked in flower arrangements throughout the White House and requested that her staff place the displays only on north walls of rooms and on circular tables
so as to not ruin the priceless paintings and wallpaper.

Mrs. Kennedy’s immediate predecessor, Mamie Eisenhower, had left a lasting impression of the importance of Cattleyas to a First Lady’s image. The Rod McLellan Co had capitalized on this popularity with their highly publicized hybrid honoring Mrs. Eisenhower in 1953. So it was no surprise that, in 1960 and 1961, two of the largest nurseries on the east coast, Rivermont Orchids and H. Patterson & Sons each submitted applications to register a cattleya for the new First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

The names of orchid hybrids are currently governed by the Royal Horticultural Society but, at the 1960 World Orchid Conference in London, the organization had just taken on this responsibility. Prior to this, English commercial grower Sanders of St. Albans had the duty.

According to strict orchid registration rules, the first application received gets to use the proposed name. As luck would have it, both Rivermont and Patterson got approved because “Laeliocattleya” and “Cattleya” were then considered separate genera.

In 1960, Rivermont Orchids in Signal Mountain, Tennessee named a stunning purple hybrid, Laeliocattleya Jacqueline Kennedy (Elissa x Derrynane). Not to be outdone, a year later, in 1961, another major Cattleya producer, H. Patterson & Sons in Bergenfield, New Jersey named a beautiful semi-alba Cattleya Jacqueline Kennedy (Enid x Ardmore). It was the first time that a
First Lady had two orchids named after her.

Rivermont’s cross was a display of the best purple stud plants of the day, from Lc Princess Margaret to Lc Ishtar. They were dark, round, and beautiful. Tracing the lineage a little farther, Lc Lustre (Callistoglossa x C lueddemanniana) appeared on both sides of the parentage which
contributed to the well shaped floriferousness of the Kennedy hybrid.

There were a total of ten species involved in this hybrid, going back seven generations, making this the most complex First Lady Cattleya to date. Such unlikely species as C schilleriana and L tenebrosa were used as well as proven cut flower studs, C dowiana, C labiata, C mossaie, C trianaei, and C warneri.

Rivermont’s nursery was a massive two acre operation with 15 greenhouses located near Chattanooga, TN. The owner, Clint McDade, was well known in the orchid world for creating outstanding white hybrids using C. Bow Bells. His famed C. Bob Betts (C Bow Bells x C mossiae), registered in 1950, was the first Bow Bells cross to bloom in the United States and it remains the most awarded white cattleya in the history of the American Orchid Society with over 66 awards.

Throughout the 1950’s, Rivermont ran full page back cover advertisements in the AOS magazine. These ads featured some very unusual marketing campaigns including one in 1955 in which the company was promoting irradiated orchid seed from a nearby nuclear power plant. Others showed a close-up of a sprouting pseudo-bulb, an xray image of a cattleya flower, and a glamorous model covered in cut phalaenopsis. Many aspiring commercial growers, including John Lines, went to work for McDade only to start their own orchid businesses later.

Like Mrs. Kennedy herself, Rivermont’s hybrid was not without a little mystery and intrigue. Bred with a long line of rich purple ancestors, this cross produced a few unlikely semi-albas including Lc Jacqueline Kennedy ‘Jilltara’ which appeared in Beall’s 1975 catalog. In addition, Lines Orchids was selling their semi-alba variety of Lc Jacqueline Kennedy as late as 1994.

Today, there are few, if any, known plants of either the purple or the semi-alba Rivermont plant in existence. Although Rivermont’s Laeliocattleya Jacqueline Kennedy was named first, it was Patterson’s Cattleya Jacqueline Kennedy that took over the orchid world. Patterson’s plant was a beautiful
semi-alba with glistening white sepals and petals and a purple lip and the company literally made thousands of them. Harold Patterson, who did the breeding for H. Patterson & Sons, made and re-made the First Lady hybrid a whopping18 times between the years of 1957 and 1960.

Patterson was aiming for huge quantities of near-perfect mid-May blossoms for the cut flower trade. They were also selling seedlings in 2 ¼” pots for $3.00 to orchid hobbyists. It is interested to note that all 18 of these identical crosses were created before any had bloomed and while John Kennedy was still Senator of Massachusetts.

Unlike Rivermont’s purple Laeliocattleya, Patterson’s cross was quite simple. It was just a primary hybrid, C. Enid (warscewiczii x mossiae) with a secondary hybrid, C Ardmore (Enid x mossiae). The secret to the success of the cross was two outstanding species: C warscewiczii ‘Frau Melanie Beyrodt’ (abbreviated ‘F.M.B.’) FCC/RHS and C mossiae Reineckiana ‘Young’s
variety.’ Only these specific varieties were used to make the select parents.

The original Cattleya Enid was made by James Veitch in 1898, and he described it as “having a light rose-purple sepals and petals and a finely crisped lip of deep crimson-purple with a rich yellow throat.” It didn’t take long before other breeders were crossing semi-alba varieties of C warscewiczii and C mossaie to produce fine C Enid’s.

Cattleya warscewiczii ‘F.M.B.’ was awarded a First Class Certificate in 1904. It was the parent of all the semi-alba C Enid’s awarded by the RHS in the early 1900’s and obviously a great stud plant. Patterson’s C Enid’s were especially outstanding because they were made using C mossiae ‘Reineckiana Young’s variety’ which had not become available to breeders until the late 1940’s.   

Thomas Young’s variety of C mossiae was originally an imported jungle plant from Venezuela in the late 1920’s. It proved to be an excellent stud plant and was kept under lock and key for many years. One division escaped and, through a comedy of errors, eventually ended up in the Patterson collection. The very first cross Patterson made using the C mossiae was C Enid which
garnished several awards from the American Orchid Society including a First Class Certificate.

Harold Patterson kept detailed breeding notes and employed a Cytologist to count the number chromosomes of his stud plants. He announced that “The future in Cattleya breeding will, of course, be decided through the thorough knowledge and application of Polyploidy….with regard to growth habits: namely season, strength of growth, color, stem length, texture, and size of
flower.” Some of Patterson’s Enid’s and Ardmore’s were diploids, others tetraploids. When making Mrs. Kennedy’s namesake flower 18 times, he tried many combinations of each parent in his pursuit for perfection.

Ernest Hetherington described Patterson’s First Lady hybrid as “truly outstanding, and of excellent vigor, with flowers often up to 8-9 inches across.” Additionally, we have found the hybrid to have superb ‘carriage’ in which the many buds easy clear the sheath and open fully. Thus, C Jacqueline Kennedy was suitable for cut flowers or as a display plant.

The Patterson nursery, nicknamed ‘Orchidhaven’, was a multi-generation business with all the children and grandchildren involved. The first greenhouse was built in the early 1930’s and by their peak in the 1960’s, there was 100,000 square feet of growing space. Harold Patterson is
credited with making such classic hybrids as Lc Delores Ziegfield, C Barbara Billingsley, and C Catherine Patterson. Their Cattleya Jacqueline Kennedy became widely circulated and can still be found in collections today.

What will be remembered most about Jacqueline Kennedy and her two namesake Cattleyas is that she entered the White House at the tender age of 31 sporting a fashion style that was much different than her predecessors. Orchids were not to be worn but rather enjoyed in flower arrangements and as wedding accoutrements.

She led the country through a period of mourning after her husband’s assassination in November 1963 and, for the remainder of her life, she was dedicated to preserving his memory through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 12:00