First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Betty Ford

Betty Ford and her husband, Gerald, were eagerly looking forward to retirement following his 13 successful terms as a Congressman from Michigan.  The plan changed following a series of unlikely events which elevated Mr. Ford first to Vice President and then to President. Within that eight month period, Betty Ford found herself First Lady of the United States.

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren ‘Betty’ Ford championed a number of important causes during her short tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and lobbied passionately for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Within a few weeks of her husband taking office, she announced to the world that she had breast cancer – a disease which was not being discussed publically. Her candidness with this personal health issue led many women to seek testing and potentially life-saving treatment. Mrs. Ford became a symbol of the changing times and, in 1975, Time magazine named her Woman of the Year.   

Following her White House years, Mrs. Ford gained more prominence when she founded and chaired the California-based Betty Ford Clinic in 1982 for substance abuse. As before, she opened up her personal life for the benefit of others. Today, the treatment center has seen over 100,000 patients from
all walks of life, including such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Mantle, and Mary Tyler Moore.

Coming off its success with Pat Nixon’s 1969 namesake cattleya, Hausermann Orchids of Villa Park, Il, (now called Orchids by Hausermann) jumped at the chance to present another First Lady with one of its hybrids. Mrs. Ford was a flower enthusiast and was scheduled to appear at the 1982 Allied Florists Convention in Denver, CO. Though she had left the White House six years earlier, the former First Lady was a big draw for the annual event which was being held at the posh Hilton Hotel.

As soon as it was announced that Mrs. Ford would attend the springtime convention, Hausermann looked through their stock and found a lovely floriferous purple hybrid which had not yet been named. They promptly registered the cross as Laeliocattleya Betty Ford (Lc Nigrescent x Lc Barbara’s Delight).

As the date for the event approached, however, none of the plants were blooming. Faced with having no flowers for the presentation, company representative Roy Hausermann decided to use a framed picture of Lc Betty Ford ‘Winter Delight’ to show the former First Lady. As can be seen from the photograph of the presentation, Mrs. Ford was all smiles and loved the gesture.

Lc Betty Ford was by far the most complex of any first lady hybrid to date. It had an exceptionally long lineage comprising seven generations of breeding and twelve different species. Cattleya dowiana appeared fifteen times. Such unlikely choices as C loddigesii and L pumila were also in the mix.

Lc Betty Ford was destined to have a rich dark purple color because one of its parents was Lc Nigrescent (C Nigritian x Lc Bonanza) which had an impressive background of some of the darkest hybrids ever made. The driving force for this color was Cattleya Fabia (C dowiana and C labiata), which appears four times in the lineage. Primary hybrids of Cattleya dowiana usually produce dark flowers, but with C labiata, this color is deeper and more intense than with other cattleya species. Only C Leda (dowiana x
percivaliana) is as dark. The Royal Horticultural Society in England awarded a number of C Fabias and we have shown two of these to demonstrate their remarkable coloring. The first was C Fabia ‘Memoria Lord Roberts’ AM/RHS shown by Sanders in 1916 and the second was C Fabia ‘Holford’ AM/RHS from 1921.

Cattleya Fabia was first made by James Veitch & Son’s breeder, John Seden in 1894 and was one of Seden’s earliest crosses, probably because the flowering season of the two parents overlapped. Unfortunately, it did not get much acclaim at the time because as Veitch described it in his Hortus Veitchii in 1906, the flowers were “light rosy-pink with a lip approaching that of Cattleya labiata”. Re-makes of the cross, however, produced the wonderful dark-colored flowers that made the cross famous.

By 1946, C Fabia had been used in over 200 crosses. The primary hybrid flowered in September at the beginning of the fall social season so it was widely grown commercially during the cut flower era of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in the United States. Thomas Young Orchids in Bound Brook, New Jersey grew entire greenhouses of C Fabia during this period.

Lc Nigrescent was a great dark hybrid because of its Fabia-based parent, C Nigritian (Fred Sanders x Nigrella) which included an unusually dark C Mrs Pitt ‘Charlesworth’ AM/RHS (dowiana x loddegesii) in its ancestry. C Nigritian ‘King of Kings’ received an AM from the AOS in 1982 and also proved to be an excellent parent for dark cattleyas. The three generation trio of Nigrescent (1959) – Nigritian (1945) – Nigrella (1934), whose root name is derived from the African river Niger, proved unbeatable for the striking blackish purple Betty Ford.

The other parent of Lc Betty Ford, Lc Barbara’s Delight (Lc Aristocrat x Lc Winter Belle), was built on the queen of good-shaped species, C trianaei and was named after Gene Hausermann’s sister, Barbara. This richly-colored purple hybrid was cut flower stock for Hausermanns for many years and was registered in 1982 at the same time as Lc Betty Ford. Lc Barbara’s Delight breeding is long and storied and includes three C Octave Doin (C dowiana x C mendelii 1899) as well as three C Enid (C mossaie x C warscewiczii
1898) .

Hausermann cloned the two best varieties of the cross and made them available to the public. The first was the same flower shown to Mrs. Ford, ‘Winter Delight’, a medium lavender with a two-tone yellow/purple throat. The second was ‘York’, a dark purple with an even darker throat, named after nearby York township.

‘Winter Delight’ was heavily promoted in the Hausermann catalog and, as late as 1992, was featured on the back cover. ‘York’ was also listed and, for many years, both varieties were sold in all sizes ranging from young plants in 2” pots to specimens in 8” pots. The company had also grown and was now approaching 160,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

Despite its fame and early sales, ‘Winter Delight’ was eventually phased out in favor of ‘York’. Hobbyists sought the rich coloring as well as ‘York’’s superior vigor - large pseudo-bulbs, thick fleshy leaves, 4-5 large flowers per pseudo-bulb and multiple leads in a pot.

One of the fascinating characteristics of ‘York’ is that, although this variety is normally a reliable November/December bloomer, bud formation can be delayed by using a technique that is rarely found today – the addition of lights. Back in the cut flower days, commercial nurseries would speed up or delay blooming times to coincide with the demand for corsages – usually holidays and dances. Only a few cattleya species can have their flowering season altered significantly. C labiata and some of its hybrids are controllable by light because in the jungle, the Brazilian species starts to bloom when the days get shorter (September in the United States).

Growers discovered that a single incandescent light bulb, which turned on at dusk, effectively created longer daylight and could delay a C labiata hybrid for months. Over time, a formula was developed that calculated the exact number of light bulb hours needed to gain the desired delay in blooming time. Growers would refer to a chart and set their timers accordingly.

The complex hybrid, Lc Betty Ford, is heavily influenced by C labiata (mostly through the use of the primary hybrid C Fabia (dowiana x labiata) and variety ‘York’ responds very well to light. Thus, Hausermann, which grows thousands of ‘York’ each year, is able to spread out the blooming season
from November to April. As a result, ‘York’ remains one of Hausermann’s best sellers along with such staples as Lc Irene Finney and Blc Hausermann’s Holiday.

Lc Betty Ford ‘York’ is by far the most widely circulated of all the first lady hybrids. Gene Hausermann estimates that his company has sold over 20,000 of them. It is common to see the plant on orchid society show tables around the country during the winter months – usually with a blue ribbon attached.
In 2009, ‘York’ received an Award of Merit from the American Orchid Society – 27 years after the hybrid was first registered.

Mrs. Ford’s legacy of empowering women and helping others will continue for generations. Thousands of orchid hobbyists around the globe are reminded of this legacy each year when her namesake cattleya unfurls its glorious richly-colored dark blossoms. Her maiden name was, after all, Bloomer.

Sunday, February 1, 2015 - 12:00