Cattleya warscewiczii

The king of the mountain heralds the arrival of summer


C. warscewiczii typical

One of my favorite times of year is early summer, not because the sun is at its brightest then, or because the days stretch lazily into long warm summer evenings, but because this is when my favorite Cattleya species, Cattleya warscewiczii, blooms.

This great species dwarfs all the rest of the Cattleya genus with the sheer size and splendor of its magnificent flower spike. It is a giant among orchids.

Cattleya warscewiczii is not only the largest-flowered of the Cattleya genus with flowers that can reach 12 inches across from petal tip to petal tip, it also produces the largest flower spikes with as many as 10 of these huge flowers per spike. When well grown, the flower spike stands almost vertical, unlike most of the other Cattleya species, which produce flowers in a horizontal plane. This vertical placement of the flowers adds to the overwhelming grandeur of the bloom spike and makes C. warscewiczii truly the king of the Cattleya species.

Some 50 years or so ago, when I first started growing this monarch, no one ever called it C. warscewiczii. In fact, few people would know what you were talking about if you called it that. The old growers called it Cattleya gigas (pronounced gee í gus). The name gigas, which means “giant,” was given to it by Jean Jules Linden in 1873, when he believed he was first to describe it botanically. He wasn’t the first, of course, because H.G. Reichenbach had done that 19 years earlier in 1854 in the German botanical publication Bonplandia (2:112) where he named it in honor of his “dear friend,” Josef Warscewicz. But, although Reichenbach named it officially, Linden was the one who actively promoted it under the name Cattleya gigas, which soon became the common name for C. warscewiczii — as it still is today.


While we are all indebted to Josef Warscewicz for his contributions to the discovery of many orchid species, one has to be something of a linguist to handle the name warscewiczii, where the “w” is pronounced like a “v” and the sounds and spelling are not familiar to the English language. Most people still find it easier to use Linden’s name, gigas, for this reason. They use it as a common horticultural name much as we do when we call Pyrus communis a pear or Prunus armeniaca an apricot.


There are two major types of Cattleya warscewiczii. One of these blooms from late June to early July in the United States, and has pseudobulbs a foot or so high. Cattleya warscewiczii ‘Firmin Lambeau’, ‘F.M.B.’, and the lavender “Imperialis” forms belong to this group. The other major type blooms from late July to early August. It has taller pseudobulbs and larger flowers with larger, darker lips. The “Sanderiana” forms of C. warscewiczii are in this second group.

There is a third type of C. warscewiczii that I have not seen in cultivation since the late 1940s. It has tall pseudobulbs with up to 12 flowers per spike. The flowers are fairly dark, but are no more than half the size of the other two types. Because of its relatively small flowers, the third type has never been held in high regard by commercial growers or hobbyists, which is why we do not see it any longer.

Cattleya warscewiczii is often described as having two large yellow “eyes” in the lip, but although a few clones do have large eyes, most have relatively small yellow eyes like the one pictured on page 579. There has also been an occasional plant found that has a solid dark purple lip with no eyes at all. Two such plants were awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society many years ago: ‘Rothschild’s’, AM/RHS (1895) and ‘Saturata’, FCC/RHS (1906).

Cattleya warscewiczii is one of the easiest of the large-flowered cattleyas to recognize, not only because of its flowering season and growth habit, but also because there are relatively few color forms and most lavender C. warscewiczii look somewhat similar. This is quite different from many of the other large-flowered Cattleya species, which have so many diverse color forms that it is sometimes difficult to tell one species from another.

Cattleya warscewiczii Sanderiana

There has been considerable confusion in recent years over the term “Sanderiana” when it refers to Cattleya warscewiczii. “Sanderiana” is a type of C. warscewiczii and not a specific clone, but some writers and growers still use ‘Sanderiana’ as though it were a clonal name. Unfortunately, Sander himself contributed to this present-day confusion by describing “var. Imperialis” and “var. Sanderiana” in the 1927 edition of Sander’s Orchid Guide. Sander did not mean “variety” in the sense of “clone” when he wrote this, but it is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that.

To confuse things even more, the Royal Horticultural Society in 1893 gave an Award of Merit to a C. warscewiczii with the clonal name ‘Sanderae’. The RHS has never awarded a C. warscewiczii with a clonal name ‘Sanderiana’, although some authors have described Sanderae as Sanderiana. So when you see a label on a plant that reads “Cattleya warscewiczii Sanderiana,” it means a large, late-flowering type of C. warscewiczii, and not that great clone you have always wanted to own.

Unlike Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya trianaei, which have hundreds of named clones, those of C. warscewiczii are relatively few in number. The clones that are named, however, are some of the most famous in the annals of orchid history. The most famous clone of all is C. warscewiczii ‘Firmin Lambeau’, FCC/RHS (1912), the first true alba form ever found. While Sander could tell his collectors in Venezuela to ship him a case or two of C. mossiae alba, no one had ever seen an alba C. warscewiczii until ‘Firmin Lambeau’ came along. ‘Firmin Lambeau’ sold in 1910 for a fabulous $5,000 (equal to about $25,000 today) and John Lager, cofounder of the venerable firm of Lager and Hurrell, who found the plant, personally took it across the Atlantic to assure it would get to its new owner safely.

Much has been written about the genetics of ‘Firmin Lambeau’ because the early crosses made between it and the alba forms of C. mossiae, Cattleya gaskelliana and Cattleya warneri produced only lavender-flowered hybrids. It was not until ‘Firmin Lambeau’ was crossed with C. trianaei alba that white flowers were produced and geneticists realized there were two distinct types of albinism in the Cattleya species.

‘Firmin Lambeau’ is still an exceptional white C. warscewiczii, although its selfings have received more publicity lately. Because of its large size and good shape, it would be considered a fine C. warscewiczii even if it were lavender.

Semialba C. warscewiczii are not as rare as the alba form, but they are still rare compared with most other Cattleya species. The most famous is undoubtedly ‘Frau Melanie Beyrodt’ (Mrs. Melanie Beyrodt), FCC/RHS (1904). This plant is commonly referred to by the abbreviation “F.M.B.” and it is the best and most widely used C. warscewiczii for breeding semialba Cattleya hybrids. The combination of C. warscewiczii ‘F.M.B.’ and C. mossiae reineckiana ‘Young’s variety’ produced the exceptionally fine strain of Cattleya Enid alba sold by H. Patterson & Sons in the 1940s and 1950s. Because of its excellence, Patterson made this cross over and over again, year after year for both plants sales and cut flowers. Patterson’s C. Enid alba received many awards including an FCC/AOS (1951) for the variety ‘Orchidhaven’.

Cattleya warscewiczii produces some of the most vivid shades of purple in the Cattleya genus, and it is no wonder its natural hybrid with Cattleya dowiana aurea, Cattleya Hardyana, has such magnificent lip coloring. The famous dark C. warscewiczii ‘Lows’, FCC/RHS (1910), is in the background of most of our darkest Cattleya hybrids, including Blc. Norman’s Bay, Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales and Blc. Oconee. Another well-known dark clone is C. warscewiczii ‘Meteor’, but many other fine dark clones are simply not named.

There are also some beautiful old blush clones of C. warscewiczii like ‘Rosslyn’, AM/RHS (1904) which, although it has relatively narrow petals, can produce a breathtaking flower spike. And, of course, the most famous of the “blue” clones is without question C. warscewiczii ‘Helena de Ospina’.

Because it produces the greatest number of flowers on a spike of all the large-flowered Cattleya species, C. warscewiczii has been invaluable in hybridizing to increase flower count in Cattleya hybrids. Virtually all the primary hybrids of C. warscewiczii have been important historically for this reason.

Cattleya Enid, the primary hybrid between C. mossiae and C. warscewiczii, has been an essential building block to many of our most floriferous Cattleya hybrids because C. mossiae also contributes size and ease of flowering to the partnership. Cattleya Enid is particularly interesting because it can flower at any time of the year, and is not restricted to the flowering season of its parents.

The most beautiful primary hybrid is the natural hybrid, Cattleya Hardyana, which has remarkably brilliant lip patterns. While this was widely used in making early Cattleya crosses, the fine old dark clones are no longer in existence.

It is difficult to say too many nice things about C. warscewiczii. John Lager, the dean of orchid collectors in the United States and an expert on the Cattleya species, who tramped through the jungles of Colombia for many years, had an unusually high regard for C. warscewiczii. In his lecture to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1907, after leading his listeners through the maze of spurs, ridges, valleys, canyons and precipices of the Colombian mountains, he observed that “on crossing the Magdelena River going Northeast, we find Cattleya gigas Sanderiana in the State of Cundinamaca. This Cattleya is without doubt the grandest of all the South American Cattleyas. The enormous size of the flowers and as many as 10 on a spike is a sight worth seeing.”

It is no wonder Jean Jules Linden felt he had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when he found his C. gigas. Linden, however, went straight to the point when he said, “Cattleya gigas is quite simply the most beautiful orchid in the world.”

While its flower spikes are awe-inspiring, C. warscewiczii is also known for its strength and determination to survive. It was Lager, again, who said, “I have seen this cattleya climb up the mountain until actually stopped by the cold; the plants in such localities are, as a rule, stunted, struggling as they do for an existence, the front part of the plant somehow will push out new leads repeatedly, while the pseudobulbs behind will lose their leaves and die off.” This is not a soft, spineless orchid, but a giant among orchids in many different ways.

Summer is a wonderful time of year, and my summer cattleya in glowing shades of velvety-purple is still and will forever be, King of the Mountain.

How to Grow Cattleya warscewiczii

MOST people do not grow or flower Cattleya warscewiczii well. If you want to enjoy a really strong flower spike, you should start C. warscewiczii growing as early as possible in late January or early February. You do this by giving it full sun and teasing it with light spraying of water on sunny days. Once the “eye” (growing point) breaks and begins to grow, continue to give it light sprayings of water and as much sun as it can take without burning. The leaves should be a yellow-green and you will need lots of air moving around the plants to keep the leaves from getting warm. Once the leaves feel warm to the touch, you will have to add enough shade to prevent the plants from burning.

Cattleya warscewiczii should not receive much water until the new growth is at least 4 inches tall. Too much water, too early, seems to retard rather than stimulate good flower production, and even early growers like Linden felt this was important enough to call to the attention of their customers.

As the growth gets taller, slowly begin to increase the amount of water, but even when you are giving it heavy waterings, always let it dry out thoroughly before watering again. The old pseudobulbs should be fully plump by the time the new leaf begins to emerge.

If you want a fine tall spike of flowers, be careful not to allow the plant to get too warm as the buds emerge from the sheath; otherwise, the spike will tend to curve over and spread the flowers horizontally rather than their normal beautiful vertical conformation. It can be difficult to keep C. warscewiczii cool enough when the outside summer temperature is over 90 F. We often move our C. warscewiczii from the greenhouse onto a cool porch once the buds emerge until the whole spike is open.

The right time to repot C. warscewiczii is immediately after it has flowered, since this is the time it will normally send out a flush of new roots from the newest pseudo-bulb. Never repot it just before it begins to grow because it will need all the roots it has to handle the new growth and flower spike.

Because it makes such a heroic effort to grow, root and produce its huge flower spike in such a short time, C. warscewiczii needs a long rest after flowering if you want another good flowering the following year. Allowing it to make another growth after flowering should be avoided although I have found a really strong-growing plant may not always cooperate with you on this. — A.A. Chadwick.

Tuesday, June 1, 1999 - 12:00