First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Nancy Reagan

Nancy Davis Reagan was First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989. She ushered in an elegance and formality into the White House which had not been seen in years. Her favorite color was red which she wore so often that the fire-engine shade became known as ‘Reagan Red.’ She and her husband, the 40th U.S. President Ronald Reagan, were inseparable and she was one of his closest advisors.

The former Nancy Davis was a successful Hollywood actress appearing in twelve movies between 1949 and 1958. Her mother had also been an actress in the early days of film. It was only fitting that Nancy would marry a leading man and president of the Screen Actors Guild. The newlywed couple appeared together in one motion picture, Hellcats of the Navy.

Soon after, Mrs. Reagan left her acting career to raise children. She then embarked on a political journey that saw her husband serve two terms as Governor of California and two terms as President of the United States.

Her major initiative as U.S. First Lady was the ‘Just Say No” anti-drug awareness campaign which sought to encourage children to say no to recreational drug use. Mrs. Reagan traveled the country promoting the idea. She visited rehabilitation centers, appeared on numerous talk shows, and recorded public service announcements.

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Kiwanis Club International, and the National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth helped promote the cause. Over 5000 Just Say No clubs were founded in schools and a $1.7 billion drug enforcement law was passed on Capitol Hill. The popular slogan ‘Just Say No’ became part of American culture.

In1968, during Mr. Reagan’s first term as Governor of California, local South San Francisco grower Rod McLellan named a cattleya for Nancy Reagan. A glamorous Hollywood couple now occupied the Governor’s mansion and McLellan sought to get in on the action. The company could not have predicted that Mr. Reagan would one day become President of the United States.

Fifteen years earlier, the same South San Francisco firm enjoyed great success with another political wife, U.S. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower (See Orchids May 2014). This time, however,

McLellan was targeting local hobbyists who were familiar with Mrs. Reagan and might buy her namesake plant because they liked her. At their spring open houses during peak Cymbidium season, McLellan offered enormous displays of Lc Nancy Reagan seedlings in bloom for their walk-in clients. By one account, “…there must have been 100 of them in the sales house.”

By the late 1960’s, the Rod McLellan Company and their ‘Acres of Orchids’ were in full swing. Every month, they ran full-page advertisements in the AOS Bulletin – going head to head with such heavy-hitters as Stewarts, Vacherot & Lecoufle, Kensington, Rivermont, and Dos Pueblos. Each McLellan ad promoted a different genus: intergeneric oncidiums, miltonias in spike, novelty phal hybrids, complex paphs in bud, yellow cattleya seedlings. And who can forget the amazing Wonder-Lizer instant plant food and accompanying Model 100 Waterfeeder?

The new Nancy Reagan cattleya was destined to be great. Both of the parents were stars in their own right and McLellan picked the perfect color for her namesake flower. The lineage comprised many generations and was complex - with 11 species in the background. The majority of the breeding influence was from Cattleya dowiana, labiata, and trianaei which bloom in the summer, fall, and winter respectively. Surprisingly, Nancy Reagan was a spring-bloomer.

There was one flower quality award given to the hybrid. McLellan exhibited ‘Regal Lady’ HCC/AOS in March of 1970. This variety would later become the first of the first lady cattleyas to be awarded by the American Orchid Society – joining Lc Betty Ford ‘York’ AM/AOS, Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton ‘First Lady’ HCC/AOS, Blc Laura Bush ‘First Lady’ AM/AOS and Blc Laura Bush ‘Carmela’ AM/AOS.

McLellan advertised the new Reagan hybrid in their early 1970’s catalog with a striking photograph. The caption reads, "Lc. Nancy Reagan...excellent flower with outstanding parents (Lc. Walter Slagle 'Lavish' x C. Nigritian 'Sudan') – Practically all of our Walter Slagle plants have been outstanding. We hope to enhance the color with the addition of C. Nigritian. This cross is named in honor of California's First Lady.”

It would be challenging to “enhance the color” of Lc Walter Slagle which was given numerous flower quality awards in part because of its stunning reddish purple color. However, C Nigritian was a proven breeder of dark purples with dozens of first generation offspring to its credit. It would be a breeder’s dream to combine these two parents.

McLellan was offering three sizes of Lc Nancy Reagan: 5” $15-$20, 6” $18-$30, and 7” $20-$40. The plants must have been very well grown to be offered for sale in seven inch pots.

Rod McLellan not only bred Lc Nancy Reagan but also its parent, Lc Walter Slagle (Mary Rose x Walter Winchell) in 1960 and heavily promoted the hybrid in their mail order catalogs. There were a total of 14 individual flower quality awards given to the Slagle between 1960 and 1968.

In 1962, a large grouping of the plants was exhibited at the Oakland Judging Center where they received the highly coveted Award of Quality or AQ/AOS. The American Orchid Society defines this award as “a group of not less than 12 plants or inflorescence of different clones of a hybrid or cultivated species. At least one of the inflorescences must receive a flower quality award and the overall quality of the group must be an improvement over the former type.”

Not many large-flowered cattleya hybrids have ever won an Award of Quality. Previous winners include such classics as C Irene Holguin, Bc Mount Hood, and Lc Elizabeth Off. Cattleya seedlings often bloom over the course of months yet twelve plants are needed at the exact same time to be considered for this award. In addition, the flowers must be fresh and with few imperfections yet cattleya blossoms generally only last a few weeks and are easily bruised. Finally, there has to be an orchid judging event at the precise moment that the twelve plants look their best.

McLellan had previously received an AQ/AOS in 1959 for Lc Ann Follis so they knew what was involved to get such an award. Much preparation was needed. The plants to be judged had to be selected well in advance, staked while the buds were in the sheath, then groomed to perfection before they left the greenhouse. Even still, the element of luck was required.

The company catalogs from the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, showed a beautiful tiered grouping of 13 seedlings in bloom with the caption “Lc. Walter Slagle has now won the highest acclaim as the famous top exhibition colored Cattleya. As a triumphant example of profound perfection, the Walter Slagle was presented with the Award of Quality of the American Orchid Society and the Orchid Digest Corporation. The plants are exceptionally vigorous in growth. Many have flowers with extremely deep shades of deep red lavender, some have golden "eyes" or more prominent yellow in the throat.” The company was never shy about self-promotion.

The catalog listed Walter Slagle as being ‘controllable’, thus, the blooming season can be delayed significantly (or controlled) by using artificial lights. Hausermann Orchids used a similar cultural technique to get their November-blooming Lc Betty Ford ‘York’ AM/AOS to produce flowers through May.

Lc Walter Slagle has an unusually long lineage of purple breeding but the parent that seems to make it different from other flowers of its day is the primary hybrid, Laeliocattleya Dominiana (L purpurata x C dowiana), which produced some offspring with a reddish/purple tone.

Lc Dominiana is one of the most fascinating of the early cattleya hybrids. It was originally made by John Doniny, foreman of the British orchid company Messr. James Veitch and Sons. Dominy is credited with being the first person to make a cattleya hybrid. He did this in 1852 and Lc Dominiana is the last of his hybrids to flower.

Although Dominy was a good orchid grower, he was a very poor record keeper and he often failed to record important facts about his crosses. In the case of Lc Dominiana, he neglected to mention the parents he used. When Lc Dominiana flowered for the first time in 1877, Dominy and his boss, James Veitch had to guess which species he had used. In Veitch’s famous 1887 A Manual of Orchidaceous Plants, Veitch speculates that the parents of Lc Dominiana “were probably Cattleya dowiana and Laelia purpurata”, but Robert Rolfe, editor of The Orchid Review, after seeing the flowers, felt it was C dowiana “with some Laelia – probably L crispa.”

The mystery was not solved until the cross was remade by John Seden, who succeeded Dominy at Veitch. Seden combined C dowiana and L purpurata and, when the seedlings flowered, the blooms were just like Lc Dominiana. In Hortus Veitchii, his history of the Veitch company in 1906, James Veitch wrote that Seden’s cross ‘clears up the uncertainty which previously existed as to the origin of Laeliocattleya Dominiana,” and he published a full-page picture of a fine variety next to his comments.

John Seden apparently liked Lc Dominiana and he sought to improve its somewhat starry shape by crossing it with a nice, round Cattleya trianaei. The new hybrid was called Lc Rosalind which bloomed in 1896. Veitch describes Rosalind as having “rose-pink in the petals with darker rosy-purple in the lip.” Darker varieties of Lc Dominiana came along in the early 1900’s which produced the reddish-purple that we sometimes see in hybrids such as Lc Walter Slagle and Lc Nancy Reagan.

McLellan made one cross with Lc Nancy Reagan – a 1981 hybrid called Blc Fancy Nancy (Lc Nancy Reagan x Blc Mem. Crispin Rosales) which coincided with Mrs. Reagan’s first year in the White House. Once again, a reddish-purple flower was bred with a proven big purple stud and offered for sale. 

Despite the considerable availability of Lc Nancy Reagan around 1970, few specimens are known to exist today and we are remaking the cross.

What will be remembered about Nancy Reagan in the horticulture world is her obvious love of orchids. She had hybrids from three different genera honoring her. And although her namesake cattleya was registered while she was First Lady of California, Lc Nancy Reagan goes down in the history books as being ahead of its time for she would later move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The reddish purple color of her flower is unique among the wives of United States   Presidents. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015 - 15:45