First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Mamie Eisenhower

Having won the greatest war of the 20th century, President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 ushered in 8 years of calm and stability not seen in the United States for 50 years and, in the process, opened the Golden Age of Cattleya Orchids. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was the symbol of prosperity and elegance and she loved cattleyas. She was rarely seen in public without her corsage of 2 or 3 cattleya flowers during her husband’s entire two terms.

Her love for cattleyas was so obvious that the Rod McLellan Company of California named an orchid after her. This was only the second time that a U.S. First Lady had been honored with a namesake cattleya (Mrs. Herbert Hoover’s orchid was registered in 1929 – See ORCHIDS August 2013). Suddenly, the practice of naming an orchid after a First Lady looked like it might even become a tradition.

In the 1950’s, cattleya corsages were worn to nearly every social event from dinners and luncheons to afternoon teas, the theater, opera, and high school dances. Nurseries had trouble keeping up with the demand for flowers and many fortunes were made in the industry. Springtime was especially busy with floral holidays - Easter and Mother’s Day, as well as Proms and June weddings. In selecting a cattleya for Mrs. Eisenhower, McLellan chose a floriferous spring bloomer with a pedigree parentage.

The very first World Orchid Conference was held in 1954 in St Louis and Mr. Rod McLellan, himself, was a speaker. He noted that corsages are always in fashion – “as a wristlet, or on a handbag, on the shoulder or at the waist, and sometimes in the hair.” He was further promoting cut orchids for use in
flower arrangements for every room of the house.

Mamie’s namesake cattleya was actually bred in the late 1940’s for use as cut flower stock by Rod’s father’s company, E.W. McLellan. In the early 1950’s, Edgar divided his company between his two sons and gave the orchid division to Roderick who immediately began selling some of the cut flower stock as mature plants. (Rod would also revolutionize the use of fir bark as an orchid potting medium).

The Rod McLellan Co, nicknamed “Acres of Orchids”, was a tremendous operation. Located in South San Francisco, one greenhouse alone held 200,000 cattleya seedlings. The flasking house was filled with countless sterilized glass bottles and had its own Superintendant, Geneticist, and Laboratory Technicians. The extensive mail order catalog featured over a hundred new cattleya hybrids, a line of custom potting materials including Supersoil and Wonderbark, and every imaginable accessory for the hobbyist.

1955 saw the first Rod McLellan public offering of Lc Mamie Eisenhower (Lc Britannia x Lc Chevalier) as full page advertisements appeared in both the American Orchid Society Bulletin and the Orchid Digest magazine. The plant was glamorously portrayed as a painting by local artist Naomi Sandl. The wording of the ad was quite flattering. “This outstanding lavender hybrid with a rich purple lip is so charming we named it in honor of our gracious First Lady (with Mrs. Eisenhower’s permission).” (Permission was obtained through McLellan’s local congressman, U.S. House of Representative J. Arthur Younger and his wife).

The ad went on to say “Nine out of ten Mamie Eisenhower plants have been of exhibition quality, with superior size, substance, and texture. Several of these fine plants are already being used as parent stock.” McLellan continued with their purple breeding lines by combining Lc Mamie Eisenhower with
such established species as C intermedia, C mossiae, C labiata, and B digbyana, as well as such classic hybrids as C Remy Chollet, Lc Paradiso, and C Tityus.

Lc Mamie Eisenhower was an outstanding display plant as well as a prolific stud. McLellan thought very highly of its First Lady hybrid and, in 1955, charged as much as $75 for select varieties – a hefty sum at a time when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon.

Unlike many U.S. Presidents, Dwight Eisenhower had not been a career politician but rather a 5-star general and war hero during WW2. The Eisenhowers had been married 37 years prior to moving into the White House and were very close. Dwight called his wife “my invaluable, my indispensible,…my lifelong partner.”

Mamie loved to entertain and was a popular hostess. Her specialty was holiday parties, for which she had the White House decorated in the appropriate theme. Just as the Truman’s before them, the Eisenhower’s campaigned by train across the country. Mamie’s own popularity helped to bolster her husband to win two terms as president. On inauguration day, 1953, the new First Lady proudly pinned a cattleya corsage on her lapel and, in so doing, became the best spokesperson cattleyas could ask for.

Lc Mamie Eisenhower was a fascinating cross. It is the perfect example of a spring blooming hybrid made up entirely of April, May, June, and July blooming species. Since springtime was the greatest
market for cut flowers, it is obvious why Rod McLellan used Lc Mamie Eisenhower in so many crosses over the next decade.

One parent of Lc Mamie Eisenhower was Lc Britannia – a 1903 Sander’s cross between Lc Canhamiana and C warscewiczii. Lc Canhamiana was the greenhouse staple for high volume late May/early June wedding flowers and the Colombian species C warscewiczii (sometimes referred to as C gigas for its gigantic blossoms) opened in late spring and early summer.

The other parent, Lc Chevalier, an Armacost stud from 1945, began its lineage with the May flowering primary hybrid Cattleya Harold (gaskelliana x warsewiczii). C Harold was one of the first cattleya hybrids ever made and ‘Cookson’s’ variety was given an Award of Merit from the RHS in 1893. Combining Harold with three successive generations of C warscewiczii, L purpurata, then C mossaie, gave Lc Chevalier its well-timed spring blooming season.

It is significant to note that Lc Mamie Eisenhower did not contain any fall or winter blooming species in its background. There was no C labiata, trianaei, perciviliana, or schroderae anywhere in the lineage. Lc Mamie Eisenhower was all springtime.

One particularly interesting hybrid made from Lc Mamie Eisenhower was Lc Princess Gabriella Pacelli (Lc Mamie Eisenhower ‘White House’ x C Remy Chollet ‘Citadel’), registered in 1959. Once again, Rod McLellan ran full page ads for the new seedlings. The honored Princess, who was the niece of Pope Pius XII, received the flowers personally while in San Francisco for a fundraiser. As usual, the ads were descriptive and glowing. The blossom has “light, rose mauve sepals and petals, mottled, fringed lip, and lemon-yellow throat. It is very large, has exceptionally fine shape, and is spring flowering.”

What will be remembered about Mamie Eisenhower within the orchid community is her true love for cattleya flowers. She glamorized cattleya corsages like no First Lady before or since. Her namesake orchid, Lc Mamie Eisenhower, was a prominent hybrid for its time and, although rare today, remains a historical treasure.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 12:00