For over 24 years after its discovery in 1866, Cattleya dowiana reigned supreme in the genus as the only yellow-petal species. It was considered the most beautiful cattleya of its day by far, and it soon became the species most widely used in breeding the large flowered hybrids.
As important as it was, however, C dowiana failed in one important aspect. Despite its beautiful color, it did not produce hybrids that were yellow. The pigment in its sepals and petals was so genetically recessive that it disappeared entirely when bred with any other large flowered cattleya. It wasn’t until a strange new cattleya species was imported from the jungles of Peru in 1890 that C dowiana finally produced a yellow-petal large flowered hybrid. The secret ingredient that made everything work was Cattleya rex – a blossom whose creamy appearance seemed like pale lemon overlaid with white upon closer inspection. The hybrid that was produced, of course, was Cattleya Triumphans.
Cattleya rex had been one of the most elusive species in the history of orchid collecting, and it was a wonder that it ever made it to Europe. It had been previously seen in the wild by the well known explorer Jean Linden when, as a young man in the 20’s, he was traveling through South America for the Belgian government in the 1840’s. It was seen again, 30 years later, by the orchid collector Gustav Wallis. In Linden’s case, he was just surveying the plant life of Peru and Equator and was not in a position to bring back many epiphytes. Wallis, on the other hand, was in the business of gathering wild plants but found it impossible to extract the C rex specimens from the tops of the 70 foot tall trees and transport them alive through the dense jungle to a suitable port.
For years, other explorers tried to coax C rex out of the jungle, but all were unable to bring even one healthy plant back to Europe and the horticultural world. The biggest obstacle was the isolated rainforest area when C rex was endemic. If the plants were taken to the west through the Peruvian mountains, they had to travel by slow boat down the long coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan, and across the Atlantic Ocean. If the plants were taken in the opposite direction to the east, the traitorous, disease-infested tributaries of the Amazon River had to be navigated enroute to the Port of Manaos. These several month journeys nearly guaranteed desiccation and rot for the poor orchids.
It wasn’t until a carefully planned effort by a very experienced plant collector with unusually good knowledge of the Amazon tributaries, a man named Eric Bungeroth, took on the job, that a small number of C rex finally arrived in Liverpool, England in November, 1890. Even then, most of Bungeroth’s specimens died of freezing, of all things, in the unheated Liverpool warehouse where they were stored on arrival. Only about a dozen plants, those in the center of the boxes, survived. It was a tragedy that Bungeroth would never recover from.
The orchids that lived were sold to Jean Linden’s company L’Horticulture Internationale where a client named Charles Maron was the first to bloom a plant. James O’Brien from the Royal Horticultural Society in London was visiting Maron at the time, saw the lovely flowers and wrote a botanical description in The Gardener’s Chronicle, calling the plant Cattleya rex. Maron would later use C rex in hybridizing and crossed it with C dowiana to produce the primary hybrid Cattleya Triumphans in 1904.
In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, orchid hybridizing was an exciting new adventure for the commercial growers around the globe. Most of the large flowered Cattleya species were well known by then and readily available so this time period became the heyday for using those species to make new hybrids. There were plenty of outstanding varieties of C mossiae, mendelii, labiata, warneri, dowiana, and warscewiczii to choose from. One important species, Cattleya rex, was scarce and it soon became evident that if hybridizers were to enjoy the full benefits of C rex’s infusion of yellow coloring into the mix, they would have to use its primary hybrid with C dowiana was a surrogate. Breeding with C Triumphans soon took off in earnest and Sanders recorded 39 crosses with C Triumphans in its first volume of orchid hybrids.
One of the first hybrids to bloom was Cattleya King George (C Triumphans x C dowiana), made by Black & Flory Ltd of England in 1915 and it was a winner. C King George garnered a First Class Certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society the very first time it was exhibited. This hybrid was so successful, that in 1922, Black & Flory used C dowiana again to make C Cattleya Our Prince (C King George x C dowiana) – which had a sunset hue and received an AM/RHS for variety ‘Aurea’.
Early hybridizers had an interesting group of C Triumphans to work with. Some varieties looked like larger versions of C rex. A good example is ‘Blenheim’ AM/RHS exhibited by the Duke of Marlborough in 1920. Other varieties had a deeper and richer shade of yellow than even the best C dowianas. The 1917 painting of ‘The Baron’ AM/RHS illustrates this dark color.
Being a primary hybrid, C Triumphans had more vigor than either C dowiana or C rex and was not susceptible to winter rot. In addition, the flowers were more plentiful and lasted longer. It was common for C Triumphans to produce six blossoms on a well presented inflorescence. Everyone agreed that the cross was nothing short of an orchid triumph!
What is surprising is that Black & Flory was alone in using C Triumphans to make large flowered yellow hybrids. (Later they bred the best white cattleya in history - C Bow Bells). Most growers chose to make yellow hybrids using the small Brazilian Laelias, L xanthina and L flava. These Laelias are very dominant for their golden pigmentation but the resulting flowers were quite small and it took many generations of breeding to reach a respectable size. It takes even longer to breed out the remnants of the cut-lip bifoliates like C bicolor which tend to distort the shape of the blossom. With Cattleya Triumphans, the hybridizer started with large well-shaped blooms and it only took one generation to see good results.
Early hybridizers were frustrated by a lack of large flowered yellow hybrids to cross with C Triumphans. Most species and primary hybrids were lavender. There were some notable exceptions: C Hardyana (C dowiana x C warscewiczii) had at least two yellow petal varieties including ‘Clement Moore’ which can still be found in some private collections today. C Fabia (C dowiana x C labiata), C Octave Doin (C dowiana x C mendelii), C Empress Frederick (C dowiana x C mossiae), and C Maggie Raphael (C dowiana x C trianaei) also had a few yellow varieties. There does not seem to be any record of their use in making hybrids, however.
Our remake of C Prince John (C Hardyana ‘Clement Moore’ x C dowiana ‘Meadowlark’) shows that C dowiana’s golden sepals and petals can be passed on to its progeny provided both parents have the recessive C dowiana yellow genes. The original C Prince John, made by Armstrong & Brown in 1913, used the purple ‘Rosita’ form of C dowiana.
We have remade C Triumphans twice over the past 20 years with good results. Recently, John Stanton from The Orchid Trail in Morrisville, NC produced a particularly nice strain of C Triumphans using the Stewart Orchids stud, C rex ‘Imperialis.’ One of the plants, ‘Summer Moon’, was exhibited by Keith Davis last summer and it received an AM/AOS – not bad for a 109 year old hybrid.
Cattleya Triumphans has played a significant role in the history of cattleya breeding, not only because it acted as a replacement for almost 50 years of the sparsely available C rex, but also since it introduced a simple way to produce good large flowered yellow cattleya hybrids in only 7 years. Its offspring, C King George and C Our Prince, are still winners in the arena of beautiful yellow Cattleyas.