The Rainbow Cattleya
John Rolfe was one of the giants of the orchid world during the late 1800s. He was one of the most knowledgeable and hardworking orchid botanists of his time, and was ultimately recognized for his accomplishments with Britain's highest honors, including the Victoria Medal of Honor and the Veitch Memorial Medal.
He established the magazine The Orchid Review in 1893 and was the primary author and editor until shortly before his death in 1921. Rolfe was unique among his peers because he seemed almost happy at times to admit he was wrong about a botanical description, the location of an orchid habitat or some other important fact pertaining to orchids. He wrote the first account of the discovery of Cattleya labiata in the November 1893 issue of The Orchid Review, only to change it in 1900 and again in 1907. By the time he finished, he had shown conclusively that his original 1893 account was close to 100 percent wrong.
Rolfe seems to be the only botanist of the 1800s who was interested in Laelia tenebrosa. In 1889, the Liverpool Horticultural Company sent him a flower that he described in The Gardener's Chronicle of June 1, 1889 as a larger and darker-than-normal form of Laelia grandis - a species Lindley had described in 1850 (Paxton's Flower Garden, pg. 60). Based on Rolfe's description of the 1889 flower, however, it was undoubtedly a Laelia tenebrosa, but Rolfe felt it was just an "individual variation" (of L. grandis) and therefore hardly worth describing as a "variety."
Two years later in 1891, a Mr. A.H. Grimaditch of Clapton Square, Liverpool sent him a flower and a ps eudobulb from a plant that Rolfe described as " Laelia grandis var. tenebrosa ," ( Gardener's Chronicle, 1891, pg. 126). Grimaditch said the plant had come from a new district in Brazil. The flowers were large, copper-bronze and the sepals and petals were flat, not twisted as in the typical L. grandis . This time Rolfe considered it "no trifling variation" and described it as a "geographical variety." Linden published a painting of the flower in his famous Lindenia (vol. II, plate ccxc), with Rolfe's accompanying comments. The flowers were quite impressive and, when they were exhibited by Lord Rothschild at a Royal Horticultural Society meeting, they received a First Class Certificate. Sander's also included a painting of a large L. tenebrosa in the company's magnificent book Reichenbachia, where Rolfe again wrote the de-scription. Sander's also received an FCC/RHS on its plant, but felt it had "many distinct pecularities in growth, form, and colouring and it is quite probable that we shall ultimately regard it as a species." - but Rolfe again called it " Laelia grandis var. tenebrosa ."
Cattleya (Laelia) tenebrosa
Rolfe made it a point to look at other plants of his L. grandis var. tenebrosa in several collections over the next season, and in 1893, he decided he had been wrong in describing it as a geographical variety of L. grandis . It was really a new species, and in the May 1893 issue of The Orchid Review, he called it just " Laelia tenebrosa ." He said " Laelia grandis has smaller flowers, with nankeen-yellow, very undulate sepals and petals, and a white lip, beautifully veined throughout with radiating rose-purple veins; while Laelia tenebrosa has larger flowers with broader and flatter sepals and petals and a bronze or almost coppery hue, and a large deep purple lip with a lighter margin." He felt the differences were constant - and so L. tenebrosa in 1893 became, so to speak, its own man. The one thing Rolfe overlooked in his writings on L. tenebrosa, of course, was that, along with plants like L. purpurata and L. lobata, his new L. tenebrosa was another of the eight-polliniae large-flowered Cattleya species from Brazil, and it belonged in the genus Cattleya.
Plants of L. tenebrosa were never available in large numbers, and, except for a brief period in the late 1800s, it has been scarce in cultivation compared with other species of large-flowered Cattleyas. Laelia tenebrosa comes from a small area of southern Espirito Santo State, Brazil, where it is now considered to be virtually extinct. It grew originally on large trees in relatively dense forests. Most plants available today come from sib crosses or meristems from old jungle plants still in existence. While there are still some good large varieties in cultivation, like 'Rainforest', FCC/AOS, we have to go back to the old paintings of the late 1 800s to see how fine the species can be. Lindenia contains three magnificent paintings of L. tenebrosa that have been reproduced in this article. They show a rainbow of colors from rich clear bronze through reddish purple, through yellow in the sepal and petals, with contrasting purple lips - some with a distinct white edge. The largest flowers measure 7½ inches (19 cm) across. Although not shown in Lindenia, there are forms with deep bronze sepals and petals and a deep, solid purple lip, and some, like 'Walton Grange', FCC/AOS-RHS, with clear yellow sepals and petals with a white lip with purple markings. There is also a form with green sepals and petals and a white lip that is often referred to as an "alba."
In its primary hybrids, L. tenebrosa tends to impart a brightness that enriches the color and almost makes it glow, and L. tenebrosa is one of the most important parents of many of our yellow and art-shade Laeliocattleya hybrids. Its hybrid with Cattleya dowiana made by Charlesworth in 1901, is the famous Lc. Luminosa, which is one parent of Brassolaeliocattleya Truffautiana (× Bc. Mrs. J. Leeman), Laeliocattleya Carmencita (× C. dowiana ), Laeliocattleya Mrs. Medo (× C. Venus), Laeliocattleya Apricot Gleam (× Lc. Moonbeam), Laelio-cattleya Golden Eagle (× C. rex ), Laeliocattleya Golden Crown (× C. Sibyl), and a host of others. The hybrid between L. tenebrosa and Cattleya warneri is the famous Laeliocattleya. Gottoiana , a parent of important early purple hybrids like Laeliocattleya Saint Gothard (× C. Hardyana). Laeliocattleya St. Gothard is in the background of most of our famous lavender hybrids today, including brassolaeliocattleya Norman's Bay ( Lc. Ishtar × Bc. Hartland), Brassolaeliocattleya Mem. Crispin Rosales ( Blc. Norman's Bay × Lc. Bonanza) and Laeliocattleya Princess Margaret ( Lc. Profusion × C. Clotho).
Cattleya (Laelia) tenebrosa
In the late 1800s, when L. tenebrosa was most abundant in European collections, there were also some outstanding and large clones of Cattleya warneri in cultivation, which may account for the impressive Lc. Gottoiana used in early breeding. Laeliocattleya Gottoiana is also a naturally occurring hybrid, and some beautiful clones were imported from Bahia, Brazil in 1882, one of which received an FCC/RHS. The hybrid is named for Mr. E. Gotto of Hampton, England.
Laelia tenebrosa is considered by breeders to be dominant for color, large size and deformity-free flowers, as well as excellent plant vigor. It imparts an unbelievable richness to the flowers of its hybrids; its only negative feature is, perhaps, its narrow petals. It is certainly one of the grandest of Brazil's orchids, and has been recognized for its excellence with seven American Orchid Society Awards of Merit, and two First Class Certificates.
Like so many of our large-flowered Cattleya species, most of the fine old clones of L. tenebrosa have been lost to cultivation and appear only in the rich coloring of our Cattleya hybrids. Laelia tenebrosa today is like the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is there - but it is not there. Of the sib crosses still being made, we can only hope there are still some genes left that can unlock the grandeur of the past.
How to Grow Laelia tenebrosa
Laelia tenebrosa is a vigorous, easy-to-grow plant and one that most beginning orchid hobbyists should be able to grow well. It needs the same growing conditions as most cattleyas, including a day temperature of 85 F (29 C), night temperature of 60 F (16 C) and lots of moving air. Like Cattleya warneri, its Brazilian neighbor, it benefits from slightly less sun than the sun-loving cattleyas of Colombia, such as Cattleya warscewiczii, but will still grow fairly well even in high light levels.
When actively growing, it requires more frequent watering and should not be allowed to become completely dry. It should be kept on the dry side after flowering until it begins its new growth.
Laelia tenebrosa normally begins growing in the early autumn in the United States, and will complete its new growth by midwinter. It will then rest for several weeks and flower in late spring to early summer, depending on the clone. A well-grown plant should produce four to five flowers on a flower spike, and the flowers should last in bloom at least three weeks. The flowers will last longer if they can be kept out of the intense 90 F- (32 C-) plus temperatures of summer.
- A.A. Chadwick.