The Autumn Pixie
The first cool breeze of autumn tickles our cheeks and the smell of hot apple cider and spiced cookies fills the air, it is time for the autumn-flowering Cattleya species to make their debut. High on the list of favorites is the small-flowered species Cattleya bowringiana. With many more bright lavender blooms than its spring-flowering sister, Cattleya skinneri, C. bowringiana gives us a bouquet of flowers on a single plant. Its strong constitution and ease of culture make it the ideal plant for beginning orchid growers, for it always rewards its caretakers with at least a few flowers each autumn no matter how poorly you satisfy its needs.
Cattleya bowringiana is native to Central America in the countries of Belize and Guatemala and, along with C. skinneri, is the most northern growing of the Cat-tleya species. It is unique among the Cattleya species for having a bulbous swelling at the base of its pseudobulbs, from which the roots and growing “eyes” emerge.
Cattleya bowringiana is a remarkably adaptable plant. It can be found thriving as a lithophyte in rocky ravines, with the plants matted to the bare rocks in full sun. It is found growing as a terrestrial on quartz sand along rapidly flowing streams, and, as a typical epiphyte, on large tropical trees. Plants grow at altitudes from a few hundred feet above sea level to as high as 3,500 feet. Able to grow in such a wide variety of environments, it is no wonder C. bowringiana has always been one of the most popular Cattleya species in cultivation. As one reviewer put it, “There is no special treatment for these plants; they just grow.”
Cattleya bowringiana is also known for its tenacious ability to survive in the face of attacks from animals in the jungle. During the rainy season, when C. bowringiana plants are actively growing, their succulent young shoots are a favorite food of some of these wild animals. Collectors have frequently complained that their damage often leaves the plants not only badly eaten, but so trodden down that they are not worth collecting, yet they continue to survive, to grow and to flourish.
This plant was not always called C. bowringiana. When it was first exhibited in London by its discoverer, James Veitch & Sons, on October 31, 1885, Veitch called the plant “Cattleya autumnalis.” After it was awarded a First Class Certificate by the Royal Horticultural Society, however, Veitch renamed it C. bowringiana to honor one of his good customers, John C. Bowring of Windsor Forest. Bowring was an avid orchid hobbyist and the eldest son of Queen Victoria’s plenipotentiary in China, Sir John Bowring. Sadly, when the leading British orchid publication, The Orchid Review, wrote their obituary on Bowring in 1893, they commented only on his limited hybridizing accomplishments, and never mentioned that the magnificent C. bowringiana had enshrined him forever in orchid history.
The earliest published description of C. bowringiana appeared in The Gardeners’ Chronicle on November 28, 1885 (page 683) written, not by Veitch, but by the Chronicle’s reviewer James O’Brien. Veitch, however, took full credit for naming and describing C. bowringiana in their famous Manual of Orchidaceous Plants, and the species has been Veitch’s orchid to this day.
Although C. bowringiana is the perfect plant for beginners, with its vigor and indestructibility, it is also an excellent choice for those who like to display their skills at growing. With just ordinary care, the pseudobulbs will reach 10 to 15 inches in height. In the hands of a skilled grower, however, the pseudobulbs can reach 20 to 30 inches. Instead of producing five to 10 flowers per spike, these well-grown plants will reward the grower with a head of 15 to 25 flowers. With two or three strong leads in a 7-inch pot, C. bowringiana can easily produce 50 to 60 flowers, and there is a record of a plant with nine spikes bearing 195 flowers (almost 22 flowers per spike). Like an actor’s actor, C. bowringiana is very much an orchid expert’s orchid.
Cattleya bowringiana sometimes gets less appreciation than it deserves because it has a more limited range of color forms than other Cattleya species. There is no true alba or semialba, and flowers lack the fascinating lip patterns that characterize the large-flowered Cattleya species and make them so attractive as collectibles. I have heard it said about C. bowringiana, that, “When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” which is a terrible injustice to a fine plant. Although the typical C. bowringiana is a medium-rose lavender with a somewhat darker lip, there are also clones with dark, vibrant purple flowers that almost glow with richness. A variety of albescens forms range from light lavender to almost white, and C. bowringiana has some of the best coerulea or “blue” clones of all the Cattleya species. Sir Jeremiah Coleman, who pioneered the development of coerulea hybrids in cattleyas, had some of his best results using the blue clones of C. bowringiana — the clones ‘Lilacina’, ‘Coerulea’ and ‘Violacea’.
Cattleya bowringiana’s contributions to hybridization, however, go well beyond the coerulea. Its two most famous contributions are Cattleya Portia, its hybrid with the autumn-flowering, large-flowered species Cattleya labiata, and Cattleya Porcia, its cross with Cattleya Armstrongiae (Hardyana x loddigesii). Both C. Portia and C. Porcia are intermediate in size between their parents. They are beautifully colored, vigorous growers with tall heads of flowers and they make an impressive display. They are considered by many Cattleya experts to be among the finest and most spectacular Cattleya hybrids ever bred. Cattleya Portia was registered by James Veitch & Son in 1897 and C. Porcia by H.G. Alexander in 1927. Both have received many awards from the RHS and AOS. Cattleya Porcia ‘Cannizaro,’ which received AMs from the RHS in 1936 and the AOS in 1951, actually received an FCC/AOS as late as 1988 in recognition of its excellence. Cattleya bowringiana’s many contributions to hybridizing cover a whole range of types including Cattleytonia Rosy Jewel (x Broughtonia sanguinea), Brassocattleya Maikai (x Brassavola nodosa), amd Cattleya Barbara Kirch (x Cattleya aurantiaca).
Not all C. bowringiana have small flowers. The typical C. bowringiana has flowers that are 2 inches across with somewhat starry conformation. The ‘Splendens’ forms, however, can be more than 3 inches across and very round with petals even overlapping. The ‘Splendens’ forms were large enough that they were actually used as cut flowers during the heyday of cattleya corsages during the 1930s and 40s. Because of the large number of flowers produced on a spike, they were good moneymakers for commercial cut-flower growers, and were in great demand.
From its first day of introduction, C. bowringiana was one of the most popular of the Cattleya species. Its flowering season, ease of culture and prolific production of flowers with sparkling crystalline texture, recommended it to even the most faint of heart in the orchid community. Before long, it was a basic ingredient in virtually every orchid collection and it remained that way for a hundred years, even appearing on the cover of the AOS Bulletin in 1941. Its extreme popularity, however, eventually led to its slow disappearance, and it is not seen in orchid collections as much today as it once was. Because everyone had a plant or two 50 years ago, commercial growers stopped growing it for plant sales. If you wanted a plant, your neighbor would be happy to chop off a piece from his badly overgrown specimen plant, so it was not necessary to buy one. Now that C. bowringiana has become scarce in collections, there is a renewed demand for plants and growers have begun making sib crosses of fine clones. The species is beginning to return to its rightful place in Cattleya collections.
As autumn approaches, C. bowringiana is like a little pixie that paints the autumn greenhouse with its fluffy clouds of lavender flowers that glisten brightly in the sunshine of a fading Indian summer.
How to Grow Cattleya bowringiana
ALTHOUGH Cattleya bowringiana is probably the easiest of all the Cattleya species to grow, it does have its preferred conditions. Like most Cattleya species, it benefits from lots of sun and air and, when actively growing, should receive an abundance of water. Many growers under-pot these plants so they can be watered more often and still not develop a sour, soggy medium. This means you allow only enough space in the pot for one year’s growth instead of the usual two years.
Cattleya bowringiana can be repotted at almost any time of the year, but the best time is when new roots begin to emerge from the swollen base of the lead pseudobulb. When repotting, it is important to keep the bottom of the swollen base of the lead pseudobulb level with the surface of the medium and not below it. The “eyes,” which produce the new growths, are set quite low on C. bowringiana, and when they are covered with medium, the new growth will sometimes rot as it begins to grow.
In the United States, Cattleya bowringiana will send out new growths in late May or June that will mature by late summer. The plants will flower without a rest period in late September and October. The number of flowers produced on a flower spike depends on the overall size and strength of the new pseudobulb. The taller and more robust the pseudobulbs, the more flowers you will get. Flower color is also enriched on strong pseudobulbs and the flowers will last longer — up to 31/2 weeks instead of 21/2 weeks. — A.A. Chadwick.