The Merry Sisters of Spring

The Merry Sisters of Spring



Spring is one of my favorite times of the year – not because the sun is rising higher in the sky and the days are getting warmer and longer, but because the world has suddenly awakened to an explosion of happy flowers. All the flowers are not outside, and there is a virtual galaxy of smiling faces to greet you when you enter the greenhouse or solarium. Spring is the most prolific flowering time for the large-flowered Cattleya species and we are welcomed by some of the most beautiful stars in the orchid world, Cattleya mossiae, C. lueddemanniana, C. lawrenceana, C. mendelii, C. gaskelliana and C. warneri.


The brightest star in the galaxy is Cattleya mossiae, the national flower of Venezuela, and probably the most popular Cattleya species of all-time. Most people do not realize that this lovely plant has some of the largest flowers in the genus with many stretching over 8 inches across. The first Cattleya mossiae flowers described by William Hooker in 1836 were 8 ½ inches across and famous varieties like Mrs. J.T.Butterworth, FCC/AOS can reach 9 ½ inches. Only Cattleya warscewiczii flowers are larger.

Cattleya mossiae is one of the most free-flowering of the Cattleya species and 5 flowers on a flower spike is common. It has an almost irrepressible floriferousness and has been known to virtually bloom itself to death. It has always been recommended as a good plant for beginners because it is so easy to grow and flower. C. mossiae has a wonderful, bright fragrance that is stronger than all the other large-flowered Cattleya species except C. dowiana, and its lavender color is classic. It was actually called “orchid color” in the heyday of cut-flower cattleyas during the 1940s and 50s.



One of C. mossiae’s charms is its distinctive shape where the petals tend to fall forward, unlike most of the other large-flowered Cattleya species where the petals stand out straight. The shape is really quite attractive if you ignore the opinions of the judging community, and it makes C. mossiae different and individual from the other Cattleya species. Shape is a dominant trait in C. mossiae and is usually passed on to its hybrids. C. mossiae has the longest flowering season of all the large-flowered Cattleya species. While it peaks in March and April in the United States, there are varieties that always flower in February. May, and even early June. Because it flowers in such abundance in late March and April, it quickly became known to commercial growers in the United States and Europe as “the Easter orchid” and growers learned how to manipulate greenhouse temperatures to make the plants come in bloom exactly the week before Easter.

Cattleya mossiae is in many ways the First Lady of cattleyas. It was the first cattleya pictured on the cover of the American Orchid Society Bulletin in the first year of the Bulletin’s publication in 1932. It was the first orchid planted by Dr. Lewis Knudson when he developed the sterile technique for growing orchid seed. It was the first large-flowered Cattleya species that orchid growers could actually buy after John Lindley established the genus Cattleya, and it was first in the hearts of spring orchid show exhibitors as evidenced by the hundreds of varieties of C. mossiae they named over the past 150 years.



As beautiful and wonderful as it is, however, C. mossiae is not the only spring star. Another important and very popular species is Cattleya lueddemanniana which is a striking study in contrast to C. mossiae. C. lueddemanniana has a more conventional, upright shape than C. mossiae, but produces fewer flowers on a stem. Two flowers are normal with C. lueddemanniana compared with 4 or 5 with C. mossiae. This big difference in number of flowers made C. lueddemanniana unpopular with commercial cut-flower growers even though it was usually in flower for Easter. Because of this, relatively few plants of C. lueddemanniana were imported during the 1930s and 40s compared with C. mossiae where literally tens of thousands of plants were brought in to meet the demand for spring cattleya flowers. Because of its good shape, however, C. lueddemanniana has always been popular with hobbyists and hybridizers. Cattleya lueddemanniana has a shorter flowering season than C. mossiae and it is limited to March and early April. It also has a more subtle and delicate fragrance than C. mossiae. The biggest difference between them, however, is in their growth habit. C. mossiae completes its growth in the autumn in the United States and then roots and rests for several months before sending up buds and flowers in the spring. C. lueddemannina, on the other hand, is actively growing in the spring and it flowers before its new growth is fully mature. C. lueddemannina requires more sun than C. mossiae to get it to bloom and is not generally considered a beginners plant. There are many beautiful varieties of C. lueddemanniana, and it is often considered a connoisseur species in its native Venezuela. Like C. mossiae, C. lueddemanniana has been used extensively to produce spring-flowering cattleya hybrids largely because of its good shape. The cross between C. mossiae and C. lueddemanniana is the famous Cattleya Gravesiana, a common hybrid in Venezuela but rare today in the United States. C. Gravesiana is probably best known for its alba strains that were common cut-flowers during the 1930s and 1940s. Since C. mossiae is so floriferous and C. lueddemanniana has such good shape, C. Gravesiana enjoys both qualities and is a great hybrid. There are two general types of C. lueddemanniana, the large, light-colored coastal form and the smaller, darker Larense form. Both are beautiful and well worth growing.

One of the most charming of the spring cattleyas is Cattleya lawrenceana. Although this species has flowers only 2/3s the size of C. lueddemanniana, its flowers are presented very individually and give a truly enchanting effect. It reminds us that fine round shape is not really a necessary ingredient to make a cattleya flower attractive and appealing. C. lawrenceana also has an unusually long and thin tubular labellum that is quite different from all other Cattleya species. Because of this unusual lip, C. lawrenceana’s status as a genuine Cattleya species has never been questioned.

Because it was collected almost to extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s in its native Venezuela, Cattleya lawrenceana is not as common in orchid collections today. When it is present, however, it makes the spring bouquet sparkle and it is one of the first species to flower in March. C. lawrenceana is not as easy to grow as C. lueddemanniana or C. mossiae and it needs more careful watering to keep its roots healthy. It also prefers warmer night temperatures of 63- 65F. When well grown C. lueddemanniana produces an abundance of flowers – from 5 to 8 on a spike. Like C. lueddemanniana and C. mossiae, C. lawrenceana has a range of color forms from light to dark lavenders, albas, semialbas, albescens and even flammeas and coerulaes. The species comes primarily from Venezuela, but is also found in Brazil and Colombia in areas adjacent to the border of its Venezuelan home.

One of the most elegant and delicately colored of the spring stars is the large-flowered Colombian species, Cattleya mendelii. This species has a growth habit similar to C. mossiae and completes its growth in the autumn and rests for several months before sending up buds and flowers in the spring. It usually blooms in May in the United States. Like C. mossiae, C. mendelii is an easy-to-grow, trouble-free plant and a reliable producer of 2 to 4 flowers and is certainly recommended for beginners. The flowers are 6 to 7 inches across, but there was a strain of C. mendelii available during the late 1800s that had 8-inch flowers of very fine form, but most were lost to cultivation and it is rare to find one today. Most C. mendelii have petals that are light lavender and there are a number of beautiful semialba varieties with dark purple lips. The species has a mild and lovely fragrance.

The next of our spring stars has the distinction, historically, of filling the only vacant space in the year-round flowering display of the large-flowering Cattleya species. In 1882, there was still a brief period about late May when there were no cattleyas in bloom. Then in 1883, Cattleya gaskelliana was discovered and one Cattleya species or another was in bloom every day of the year. The event opened the door for cattleyas to become standard florists’ blooms, available all the time like roses and carnations. No other orchid had this year-round flowering quality.

Cattleya gaskelliana is a very attractive species that I feel has not received the recognition it deserves. Because it blooms at one of the hottest times of the year in northern greenhouses, commercial growers were never enthusiastic about growing it - the flowers tended to be short-lived from the intense heat. Under normal growing conditions and cooler temperatures, the species has good lasting qualities staying in bloom over three weeks. C. gaskelliana flowers can be large - 7 inches across is not uncommon, and many varieties have good shape. The species is very free-flowering and produces 3 or 4 blooms on a spike. The plants are vigorous growers, produce multiple leads and can make great exhibition displays. They have a growth pattern similar to C. lueddemanniana and are actively growing in the spring, flowering as the pseudobulb is maturing. C. gaskelliana has some very good coerulae forms, like ‘Blue Dragon’ that have contributed significantly to the production of “blue” cattleya hybrids, and it was an important parent in the famous white hybrid, Cattleya Bow Bells.

The last of our spring stars is the late spring-flowering species, Cattleya warneri – the species that closes the curtain on springtime. Cattleya warneri begins growing in the winter and continues into the early spring, but unlike C. lueddemanniana and C. gaskelliana that produce flowers while the pseudobulb is still growing, C. warneri completes its growth before buds begin to form in the sheath. It starts growing before C. lueddemanniana and C. gaskelliana, but flowers after them. C. warner has fairly large flowers in the 6 to 7 inch range and there are a few that reach the 8-inch spread of C. mossiae. There is even a record of one plant the produced 9 inch flowers. C. warneri is the only spring-flowering Cattleya species that has a double sheath. Like its autumn-flowering sister, Cattleya labiata, that also has a double sheath, it is native to Brazil. Although most C. warneri have only fair shape, there have been a few really fine round varieties that were awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society in the late 1800s and early 1900s which contributed significantly to the high quality of early C. warneri hybrids.

Cattleya warneri has been an important contributor to producing June-flowering Cattleya hybrids. Its hybrids with the two summer-flowering species, Cattleya dowiana and C. warscewiczii produced Cattleya Comet and C. Dupreana, the two most important breeding plants for the June cut-flower market.

C. warneri had more of a struggle than most other cattleyas to establish itself as a genuine species. It was mistaken for Cattleya labiata originally and sat under the labiata-cloud for more than 100 years. It was actually described as a species in 1862 in the book, Select Orchidaceous Plants, published by the man for whom it was named. I have never understood, however, why orchid authorities kept associating it with C. labiata when it flowers at a totally different time of the year than C. labiata and has other distinct characteristics. C. warneri is a very rewarding plant to grow. It is a strong grower, resists rot well and produces multiple leads. Its flowers are more durable and resistant to heat damage than C. gaskelliana and it has a wide range of color forms from pale lavenders to dark purples. There are albas, semialbas, and coerulaes and the species has unusually clear coloring in its flowers. C. warneri presents a beautiful close to the spring season.

Spring is the time of year to celebrate the rebirth of nature, and the merry sisters of the large-flowered Cattleya species always keep the music moving at a high tempo. Their large brightly-colored flowers cascade across the orchid landscape as they happily welcome us to a new season.

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 12:00