Nature's Little Pixie
I always think of cattleyas as greenhouse plants because to grow them well you need to provide lots of sun, moving air, humidity and a night temperature around 58 F (14 C), which is a little cool for the average home. There is a notable exception to this rule, however, and that is Cattleya luteola. The smallest of the Cattleya species, C. luteola flowers well, not only in a greenhouse, but also under ordinary fluorescent lights, in a confined area with virtually no air movement. Although I still grow a few plants of C. luteola in my greenhouse, most of my C. luteola now sit under fluorescent lights in my basement in a small room built to raise Cattleya seedlings in flasks. The room maintains a temperature of 70–75 F (21–24 C) at night, and when the fluorescent lights go on in the morning, the temperature rises to 85 F (29 C) and remains there until the lights go off in the evening. There are no fans in the flask room, and my C. luteola plants produce a constant flush of new growths and are in flower year round. I grow them in 3-inch (7.5-cm) clay pots in sphagnum moss that is not packed too tightly. Most of the plants I have came from Kenneth Tokach of Far West Orchids in Lake-wood, Washington, where he grows them on cork slabs in a warm greenhouse with fairly bright light, so C. luteola can accommodate a range of conditions not usually acceptable to other cattleyas. Its most important requirement seems to be a warm climate day and night.
Cattleya luteola was apparently grown successfully in Europe during the 1830s and 1840s at a time when most orchids, including other Cattleya species, grew poorly, or simply not at all. It was conventional wisdom back then to put all orchids in a heavily shaded “stove” or hot greenhouse, steaming with excessive humidity. Most orchids grew so badly under these conditions that they died in a short time and Europe became known as “the grave of tropical orchids” during this period. The ability to grow C. luteola well under low-light and high-temperature conditions seems to account for its survival when other orchids died from the same treatment.
Although C. luteola was grown in private orchid collections in Europe as early as the 1830s, it does not appear to have been sold commercially until the 1840s. It was not described botanically as a new species, however, until 1853 when John Lindley wrote about it in The Gardeners’ Chronicle (pg. 774). Because the orchid had been in cultivation for so many years under the name C. luteola, Lindley simply accepted the name without any reference to its origin or meaning. After Lindley described C. luteola, it seems everyone wanted to get into the act and, in 1856, Klotzsch described it as Cattleya flavida, Regel described it as Cattleya meyeri, Meyer described it as Cattleya modesta and Reichenbach described it twice, as Cattleya epidendroides and Cattleya holfordii. Eighteen fifty-six was an exciting time for C. luteola, and it must have been the orchid of the year. The first colored picture of C. luteola is believed to have appeared in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for 1858 (Tab 5032), and it has sometimes been called Cattleya sulfrea in reference to the color of its flowers.
Cattleya luteola is an adorable little plant with pseudobulbs only 2 inches (5 cm) tall and flowers often less than 2 inches (5 cm) across. It usually produces two to five flowers on a stem, although it can produce as many as nine flowers on a stem. Flowers are normally a lemon or sulfur color, but greenish-yellow clones also exist.
The anterior lobe is whitish on occasion, and the front of the lip can have a few purple streaks or spots, but generally, C. luteola gives the impression of being a concolor yellow flower. Cattleya luteola has only one leaf on top of the pseudobulb, and the flowers have no cuts in the lip, unlike so many of the other small-flowered Cattleya species. Cattleya luteola is reported to have fragrant flowers, but none of my plants show fragrance under either green-house or fluorescent light.
Cattleya luteola was not used much in early breeding, but has become a popular parent in recent years for making small windowsill-type Cattleya hybrids. Its cross with Sophronitis coccinea, first made by Casa Luna in 1963, produced one of the most popular miniatures of all time, Sophrocattleya Beaufort. This hybrid took over the windowsill garden scene as soon as it arrived, and became a popular parent in its own right for making miniature Cattleya hybrids. More than 100 crosses have been made since 1991 using Sc. Beaufort and it has been hybridized with all shapes and sizes of flowers of the Cattleya Alliance.
Cattleya luteola is native to the Amazon regions of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, where it grows under shady conditions on tree trunks in thick woods, along streams. The night temperatures in these regions range from the mid-60s F (16 C) to the low 70s F (21 C), with day temperatures in the mid- to high 80s F (27 C). Humidity is 80 to 85 percent and the plants flower more than once a year. Despite my love for the large-flowered lavender mountain cattleyas of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, Cattleya luteola is one little pixie I seem unable to be without. One plant or another produces its sunny yellow flowers all the time to welcome me to my flasking room. It is one of nature’s little treasures that make growing orchids so wonderfully satisfying. A.A Chadwick has grown cattleyas since 1943. His series of articles on cattleyas is now available on the World Wide Web at www.chadwickorchids.com. 520 Meadowlark Lane, Hockessin, Delaware 19707.
— A.A. Chadwick.