First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Michelle Obama


Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama grew up in the South Side of Chicago and is the wife of the 44th President of the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she balanced her role as First Lady with raising two children who were only 7 and 10 when her husband was elected.

She took on many causes during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office including poverty awareness and supporting military families but her passion was fighting the relatively new problem of childhood obesity. To this effect, she promoted physical activity and healthy eating with a program called ‘Let’s Move’ which was “about putting children on the path to a healthy future during their earliest months and years.” She appealed to elected officials, food manufacturers, and restaurant chains to make healthy food more accessible.

Her interest in horticulture was best exemplified by her 2012 book, ‘American Grown – the Story of the White House Kitchen’, which chronicled the vegetable, fruit, and herb garden that she planted in the White House’s South Lawn. The Obama State Dinners emphasized domestically sourced flowers and often featured cut cattleyas and sprays of cymbidiums and phalaenopsis.


Mrs. Obama is the 14th consecutive first lady to have a cattleya named after her. We bred the compact hybrid, Lc Michelle Obama (Mini Purple x C trianaei) and presented the flowers to her in 2009 at Norfolk, Virginia’s Harrison Opera House. She was campaigning for her husband and met us beforehand at a private reception. There were numerous politicians in attendance including the sitting governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, who had previously presented Queen Elizabeth II with our hybrid, Blc Queen Elizabeth The Second (Meditation x Lc Ecstacy) in 2007 when Her Majesty visited Richmond.

Lc Michelle Obama is a heavy fall bloomer and we had 5 plants with fresh flowers on the day of her arrival. We displayed these colorful cattleyas in a fancy arrangement which turned heads as we walked through the crowded hallway. It soon became obvious, however, that the secret service were not as excited as we were about the orchids.

Security was tight for the event and every attendee had to be screened. The drop dead gorgeous orchid arrangement was, apparently, suspicious and required special bomb detecting equipment to be allowed into the reception. Unbelievably, the security team forgot to pack the equipment and, for a while, it looked as if there would be no presentation. As time grew near and after lengthy negotiations with the agents, I was allowed to ‘pick’ two flowers from the arrangement for use in the presentation. This was not exactly the high impact that I was looking for!

Accompanying the now meager floral offering was a copy of the official Royal Horticultural Society Certificate of International Registration - framed, of course. Mrs. Obama was unaware of the ‘preshow drama’ and was genuinely excited to receive her special orchid. She even held my hand during the photograph. What more could we ask for? (The complete story first appeared in Orchids Jan 2009.)


Michelle Obama’s namesake orchid was made possible by the breeding efforts of Reverend Masao Yamada, who hybridized one of the parents, Lc Mini Purple in 1965.

Masao Yamada was born in 1907 on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He was a practicing minister there when World War II began. He soon enlisted in the Army where he became the first American of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) to be commissioned a chaplain. At the time, the United States was forcibly relocating many Japanese-Americans to interior camps.

In 1944, as part of the 442nd Battalion, he was sent to Europe where, among other things, he ministered to hundreds of wounded men.

Author Michael Markrich, in his book, ‘Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion’ writes that upon Yamada’s return to Hawaii after the war, he “gained recognition in the orchid world as both a grower and for his advanced breeding techniques.” Yamada was quite active in the local orchid societies and regularly gave lectures throughout the islands. Aside from cattleyas, he was versed on a wide range of genera including dendrobiums, and vandas.

Always eager to educate, Yamada took his orchid knowledge internationally and became involved in the World Orchid Conferences. He spoke at both the 2nd WOC in Honolulu, HI and the 5th WOC in Long Beach, CA and wrote extensively about his travels to the 7th WOC in Medellin, Colombia in 1972 where he was responsible for putting together the Hawaiian grower exhibit. The highlight for him was the two day jungle tour to see Cattleya mendelii which involved a harrowing canoe ride and climbing up 6000 feet ‘where it was hard to breathe.’

Legendary grower, Roy Tukunga, remembers meeting Yamada in the early 70’s. “My mentor, Dr Yoneo Sagawa, took me and a few students on a field trip to meet the famous Reverend Yamada. He was retired and was working on miniature and compact cattleyas. Everyone was ignoring the smaller species.”

Over his lifetime, Masao Yamada originated hundreds of hybrids. Much of his breeding involved miniature cattleyas and he was particularly fond of the diminutive species, C luteola which he used to make Mini Alabaster (x C Enid), Mini Goldy (x Blc Manu Akaka), Mini Mark (x Blc Mark Hoshino), Mini Quini (x Okami), and Mini Reef (x Great Barrier Reef). He had considerable success using another dwarf species, Laelia flava, and in 1963 registered Lc Rosemary Clooney (x C Rainbow Hill), which received a number of flower quality awards and became widely circulated.

Few hobbyists do their own flasking let alone create a custom germination medium but Yamada did both. His ‘Yamada Formula’ became known throughout Hawaii and combined Gaviota orchid fertilizer, white granulated sugar, peptone, agar, Clorox, tomato juice, coconut water, and half-ripe bananas.

Arguably, his greatest accomplishment, however, was the creation of Lc Mini Purple (L pumila x C walkeriana).


Hobbyists everywhere know of the cute little cattleya which makes a purple flower or two and always seems to be in bloom. H & R Nurseries grew several varieties of Mini Purple over the years including ‘Lea’ AM/AOS in the ‘80’s. “The seedlings easily broke in multiple directions. As fast as you could put on a new growth, a flower would appear”, recalls Tukunga.

Lc Mini Purple is one of the most heavily awarded primary hybrids of all time with dozens of AOS flower quality awards, particularly in the 1990’s as miniatures became popular. There was even a cultural award for ‘Lea’ CCM/AOS which boasted 15 flowers. The Mini Purple cross has been remade many times using different varieties of L pumila and C walkeriana and hobbyists continue to exhibit them.

One interesting direction that breeders have taken is remaking Mini Purple with coerulea parents. H & R Nurseries cloned two bluish varieties, ‘H&R’ and ‘Blue Hawaii’ AM/AOS which can be found in many collections today.

Lc Mini Purple is a widely used stud plants with hundreds of registered hybrids. Blc Rosebud (x Ronald Hausermann) and Lc Secret Love (x Candy Tuft) are industry staples for Hawaiian growers and hobbyists continue to be drawn to small plants which are easy to grow and can bloom twice a year.


Over the years, much has been written about Cattleya walkeriana which played a major role in an earlier first lady hybrid, Blc Laura Bush (Good News x C walkeriana). Laelia pumila, however, is lesser known. 

The species flowered for the first time in Europe in 1838 in a collection belonging to Englishman John Allcard who had received specimens from British Guyana. Allcard had a drawing made of a plant in bloom and sent it to the leading botanist Sir William Hooker, who classified it as a new cattleya species. The given name was pumila from the Latin ‘pumilus’ meaning ‘small, not apparent’. It was then published in Hooker’s Botanical Magazine in 1839.

Meanwhile, it became known that the plant was actually native to Brazil, not British Guyana, and it had been discovered several years earlier by Dr Gardner near Rio De Janero. None of this information made it to France, however, and, in 1842, plants arrived in Paris where well known collector, Morel, assigned the name, Cattleya marginata.

A decade later, Reichenbach moved the species to the Laelia genus and completed the unfinished description by Hooker. The 700+ word final description of Laelia pumila was exact, “The flowers are flattened out or slightly drooping, as a rule a deep crimson pink. The sepals are slightly convex; the lower ones are more slender with seven to nine veins, four and a half to five cms. in width. The petals, almost membrane-like, are quite slanted, narrower at the base, completely covered with a network of tiny veins, five to five and a half cms. long, two to three and a half cms. wide.”

Recently, botanists have decided that the Brazilian laelias such as pumila are not as closely related to the Mexican laelias as were once thought and have again reclassified the poor species. After a short stint in the sophronitis genus, pumila has been moved back to the cattleyas just as Hooker originally described it in 1839. Thus, it is one of the earliest cattleya species to have been described botanically.

Laelia pumila was first recognized by the American Orchid Society judges in 1963 and, since then, has had over 60 AOS awards. The most famous variety, ‘Black Diamond’ HCC/AOS, garnished a CCM/AOS in 2006 when it carried an astonishing 38 flowers and 31 buds. Many of the awarded varieties, however, have only one flower.

The first L pumila hybrids occurred in the late 1800’s and were made by the big names of the day: Charlesworth, Veitch, Low, Sanders, Cookson, Black & Flory, Maron, Pitt, Roebling, and McBeans. Since that time, nearly two hundred hybrids have been created as breeders try for smaller and darker flowers.

Lc Mini Purple is, by far, the most decorated of all the Laelia pumila crosses, but there have been many other successes. Lc Orpetii (x coccinea) in 1901 and Slc Pink Doll (x Tangerine Jewel) in 1983 are two examples of heavily awarded progeny.


Lc Michelle Obama (Mini Purple x C trianaei)

The idea of combining Lc Mini Purple with a large flowered cattleya species is a relatively new concept. Here, the desired result is a ‘larger’ Mini Purple with, perhaps, 2-3 flowers instead of one. Just in the past 20 years, we have seen Mini Purple bred with C warscewiczii, C mendelii, L tenebrosa, C lueddemanniana, C jenmanii, C maxima, L purpurata, and C warneri. The American Orchid Society recently gave an Award of Merit to Lc Tzeng-Wen Melody ‘Mem. Peter Mathews’ (Mini Purple x C labiata).

Conversely, the idea of using C trianaei as a parent is as old as hybridizing itself. Over 700 crosses have been made using this tried and true species. Not only is the shape of the flowers better than all the other cattleya species, but the blossoms last an incredible 6 weeks.

It only seems natural to bred Lc Mini Purple to C trianaei where the results would certainly be larger Mini Purple flowers that last forever. Thus, Lc Michelle Obama was born.

It has been fascinating to watch the Michelle Obama seedlings mature as some plants took after the pumila parent and stayed small (less that 10”) while others approached medium size (up to 18”). None grew as tall as the trianaei parent.

We were particularly interested in those seedlings which broke multiple leads since these would give the biggest floral display. In most cases, Lc Michelle Obama reaches maturity in a 3” pot.

With cattleya seedlings, it is not always easy to compare blossoms of many varieties simultaneously because the plants often bloom at different times and may be short lived. Lc Michelle Obama, however, consistently lasts 6 weeks so large groups of flowering plants can be examined side by side.

Neither Mini Purple nor C trianaei have many flowers so it is not surprising that Michelle Obama tops out at 3 blossoms per stem. Most varieties produce 1-2 blooms.

As expected, we saw the entire spectrum of lavender hues in Lc Michelle Obama since the parent species, C trianaei has the widest range of colors of all the naturally occurring cattleyas. There are three distinct color ‘forms’ represented in nearly equal numbers by very pale pink, medium light lavender, and medium dark lavender (similar to trianaei ‘Powhatan’ and Mini Purple ‘Candy Tuff’). We found the pale varieties to be the most attractive.

The lip colors ranged from light to medium to dark purple with a white or yellow suffusion. Some were solid, others veined, or marbled.

Overall, the most impressive varieties were those which had sepals and petals that were relatively flat. As a matter of personal preference, we like the ‘closed’ lips in which the columns are covered to the ‘open’ lips and both were well represented.

While none of the seedlings produced flowers as large as the trianaei parent, there were many varieties with petals spreads approaching 4 ½” wide which was considerably larger than Mini Purple ‘Candy Tuff’.

Mini Purple has the reputation of producing multiple growths in a year and blooming on each while C trianaei makes two growths which bloom simultaneously in the winter. The combination yields a smattering of random bloomers, some of which produce flowers twice a year. Over half the cross blooms between October and January.



It has been a joy to create Mrs. Obama’s hybrid, bloom the seedlings, and make a personal presentation. The flowers have been photographed, painted, and written about by admirers and we still haven’t selected our favorite for cloning as of press time. It has also been rewarding to see other breeders remake the cross in just the short time since it was registered. The public enjoys the many varieties of Lc Michelle Obama that have been donated to the United States Botanical Garden as part of the First Lady’s cattleya collection.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 - 15:30