Gardening: Spectacular orchids are a gardener’s reward

by Stan Cutler
Posted 2/12/21

Among the more dangerous pursuits of 19th-century explorers was orchid collecting.

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Gardening: Spectacular orchids are a gardener’s reward

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Among the more dangerous pursuits of 19th-century explorers was orchid collecting. These men were paid by wealthy Englishmen to penetrate the rainforests of South and Central America looking for new varieties.

In 1818, a London grain merchant/botanist named William Cattley received a specimen that was barely alive; it had no flower, a few scraggly air roots and a couple of withered leaves. Most of the collected specimens in those days were either dead or close to it by the time their packages were opened in England. Cattley put it inside a glass dome with wet wood shavings to mimic the humid conditions of the rainforest and hoped. A couple of years later, the specimen flowered in spectacular fashion. A whole new genus of orchid, cattleya, had been discovered.

Many of us watched the spectacular fireworks display on the happy night of Biden’s inauguration. If you care enough to be diligent, you can have something quite like it in your home. Most cattleyas have wonderful fragrance, not the acrid scent of burnt saltpeter, nor do they disappear in seconds. The yellow ones in the picture are called “boutons d’or,” buttons of gold. This specimen outdid the others this year, producing nine flowers that started opening around New Year’s Day.

The single-flowered one with the intense magenta lower lip, is named ““Jennifer Off, after a daughter of New Jersey’s great orchidist, George Off. The Offs are still in the business as Waldor Orchids, providing the famous orchid displays at the annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Most years, on the next weekend after the show, my wife, Valerie, travels across New Jersey to their greenhouses and buys a few specimens. Then, like William Cattley, she waits for them to flower. It often takes two or three years. “Jennifer Off” has an intense, beautiful fragrance. The single flower perfumes a room.

The first cattleya that flowered for Valerie is the one farthest to the right in the photo accompanying this article. That was 20 years ago. She was thrilled to her toes. She dubbed it ‘The South Philly Orchid’ because we had been watching the New Year’s parade and thought the flower was as gaudy as a Mummer. It has bloomed most years ever since. It, too, has a wonderful bouquet, but not as strong as Jennifer’s. 

Cattleyae hybridize easily. Their genetic trees are replete with “lalliae” and “brassiae” and whatever else. When you buy from an orchidist, the plant comes with a little tag with both the Latin names of its antecedents and an English name. The commercial name for the South Philly Orchid is “Pasha’s Palace.” It is a “brassia lallia cattleya,” as are most of the ones in the photo.  

Valerie does not try to hybridize; she just wants the ones she buys to flower. The great orchidists, like the Offs, tinker with the pollens, hoping to cross fertilize, often with specimens that are also the products of cross-pollination.  Sometimes they succeed spectacularly. It is both art and science, but mostly hard work. It takes seven years after pollination for the miniscule seeds to transform into flowering plants, during which the orchidists can only guess at what their efforts might have achieved. Often, the plants are too sensitive or unattractive for commercialization.

The orchids they sell in the box stores are clones of phalaenopsis hybrids. I’ve never seen a cattleya at Lowes or Produce Junction. Phals are grown on industrial scale from tiny cuttings bathed in chemicals. They are miracles of modern horticulture, reliable and beautiful.  

Valerie’s cattleyas spend one month a year, when they are in bloom, inside our home. They spend the warm months outside in bright shade -- they burn in direct sunlight.  She moves them into her tiny plastic greenhouse when nighttime temperatures go below 50 degrees. She inspects them every day, hoping to see spear-shaped buds, called sheathes, emerging from pseudobulbs, the plump green organs from which the leaves also grow.  The sheathes fill slowly over a couple of months, usually beginning in November and December. Valerie brings the plants into our house when their sheathes start to split open. Now, in late January, there are at least a dozen cattleya specimens blooming in different parts of the house. We brought five of them into the dining room to take their picture.

Notice the painting on the wall behind Valerie. It was created by artist Anne Boysen, sadly deceased, who was our dear friend and neighbor when we lived in Germantown. Annie’s passion for flowers rivaled Valerie’s and she filled hundreds of canvasses with her impressions of them. This one is of the interior of a greenhouse. We have several of her works. Even on those rare days when there isn’t a plant flowering somewhere in our house, Annie’s paintings blossom on the walls.

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