First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Lady Bird Johnson

Cattleya Honors Lady Bird Johnson
 “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
On the centennial anniversary of Lady Bird Johnson’s birth, a special namesake orchid was presented to her oldest daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. The timing was perfect – the week of Mother’s Day – a fitting tribute to one of the most horticulture-minded of our First Ladies.

Lady Bird Johnson became First Lady just two hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 when her husband Lyndon B. Johnson became the 36th President of the United States. She was no stranger to politics as her husband was elected to congress just three years into their marriage.

While First Lady, Johnson actively campaigned for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 that called for control of outdoor advertising and encouraged scenic improvement along the nation’s roadways. She was a lifelong advocate of flowers and at age 70, she co-founded the National Wildflower Research Center (later re-named the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, – a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and reintroducing native plants. Johnson was fond of saying “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” Today, every state plants wildflowers along its highways and there is no doubt that this effort has preserved more than a few of our native orchids.

America’s landscapes are beautiful. The roadsides in the spring are awash with blossoms of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Drivers can often tell what part of the country they are in simply by looking at the flowers along the highway. Lady Bird Johnson grew up in Texas where seemingly endless stretches of barren interstates now greet travelers with rainbows of color.

Cattleyas are ‘wild flowers’ in Central and South America where they grow on trees. In many cases, they are the National flowers of their respective countries. The pedigree lineage of this First Lady orchid relies heavily on Cattleya mossiae, the National Flower of Venezuela which blooms in the spring.

In order to fully appreciate Cattleya Lady Bird Johnson, one has to trace the history back to the early days of breeding. The background of this hybrid includes one of the great Cattleya species of all time, a semi-alba variety called C mossiae ‘Reineckiana Young’s.’ It was a jungle plant sent by a friend in Venezuela during the 1920’s to a millionaire hobbyist, Thomas Young, who lived in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

Mr. Young was very protective of his C mossiae ‘Reineckiana’ and only gave away only one division - and that was to his good friend Fitz Eugene Dixon, who was the 2nd President of the American Orchid Society. Dixon later sold his collection to his neighbor Wharton Sinkler, who was the 3rd President of the American Orchid Society, The plant was so valuable that Sinkler’s personal orchid grower would trade just the tiny flower ‘pollen’ in exchange for the latest cattleya hybrids.

One of the largest cut flower producers in the area, H. Patterson & Sons in Bergenfield, New Jersey bought Sinkler’s stud collection and remade the circa 1898 primary hybrid Enid (C mossiae x C warscewiczii ’FMB’) over a dozen times using the wondrous C mossiae. These improved strains of C Enid would result in superior hybrids in the coming years.

In 1952, Patterson created a brand new stunning semi-alba hybrid, C Catherine Patterson (C Enid x C Mrs Frederick Knollys). The flowers of C Catherine Patterson had a clear, clean white color to the sepals and petals and a rich marbled purple throat. The blossoms were enormous and opened in early May which was ideal for the Mother’s Day corsage trade.

Lady Bird Johnson’s namesake cattleya is the result of further breeding with C Catherine Patterson. First, another semi-alba primary hybrid C Trimos (C trianaei x C mossiae) was used to make C David Hill (C Catherine Patterson x C Trimos) which expanded the blooming season to include April and robust Easter sales. This new hybrid was then bred back onto a select form of C mossiae. All the C Lady Bird Johnson (C David Hill x C mossiae) seedlings have a lovely two tone magenta yellow throat as well as the vigor commonly found in the large flowered species.    

Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb gracefully accepted the flowers at her home in McLean Virginia on her late mother’s behalf. The United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC loaned a blooming specimen from their prized First Lady orchid collection in order to coincide with Mrs. Robb’s availability. The first bloom seedling was aptly given the variety name, ‘Mother’s Day’.
The public is encouraged to see the impressive Lady Bird Johnson cattleyas which bloom each spring in our nation’s capital ( They are a constant reminder of the wonderful work that Mrs. Johnson did through the years in beautifying the highways on which we drive every day.

Friday, August 1, 2014 - 12:00