Queen Bee par Excellence
It must have been fun to be an orchid enthusiast and live in London in the 1880s. You could see a new display of orchids two or three times a week. You could see the displays even if you only worked in London, because they were usually held from 11 am to 2:30 pm weekdays — during your lunch break.
The shows were held at one of several auction houses that specialized in selling orchid plants. Like any good business establishment, these auction houses or “rooms,” as they were called, found it easier to sell plants when the customers could see the flowers, than when there was just a pile of nondescript pseudobulbs. Most auctions featured lots of flowering plants all lined up and named, including the finest and newest species of the day. You were always welcome at the auction even if you did not plan to buy a plant. The philosophy was: the more people in the rooms, the more excitement the auction generates and the better the overall prices.
One of the busiest of the auction houses was Stevens’ Rooms, run by J.C. Stevens at 38 King Street, Covent Garden. One of Mr. Stevens’ larger suppliers of orchids was Frederick Sander, and when Sander’s collector, Seidl, sent him a new Cattleya species in 1883, Sander offered the plants for sale at auction at Stevens’ Rooms. Sander labeled the plants Cattleya gaskelliana in honor of a good customer, Holbrook Gaskell, Esq. Of Woolton, near Liverpool “a gentleman,” Sander said, “who by great diligence has acquired one of the finest collections of orchids in the North of England.”
Sander’s C. gaskelliana first appeared in Stevens’ Rooms at a Thursday auction the first week in March 1883. It was accompanied by two live cut flowers and one flower on a growing plant. The Gardeners’ Chronicle described Cattleya gaskelliana in a news item on March 10, 1883, the week after the auction, comparing it favorably to Cattleya mendelii, Cattleya warneri and Cattleya gigas and saying they considered it “a distinctive and pretty new plant.” The botanist H.G. Reichenbach had also mentioned it in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of February 24, 1883, when he commented briefly on a flower Frederick Sander had sent him saying, “It was distinct in colour from anything I saw before.” The auction, however, did not go well, and Sander received only ordinary prices for his plants. The buyers were simply not convinced the species was really new.
As C. gaskelliana limped onto the horticultural stage in 1883, it was adrift with no real botanical description and little recognition in horticultural circles. The Gardeners’ Chronicle did not even mention it in January 1884 in its tribute to the Important New Plant Introductions of 1883. As the spring of 1884 appeared and faded, however, orchid growers took note of one important characteristic of the new Cattleya species — its flowering season.
Cattleya gaskelliana filled the only remaining gap in the year-round flowering cycle of the large-flowered Cattleya species. There had always been one large-flowered Cattleya species in bloom every day of the year except late May and early June. Then C. gaskelliana appeared with its late May into June flowering season and, as Sander observed, “We now have Cattleya flowers all year round!” By the summer of 1884, C. gaskelliana had changed from an ugly duckling into a swan. The floodgates opened and C. gaskelliana flowed into every orchid collection in Europe and established itself firmly as an important member of the large-flowered Cattleya species. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded C. gaskelliana three First Class Certificates and six Awards of Merit, and the horticultural press wrote about it often.
Cattleya gaskelliana had a number of fine qualities to recommend it to orchid growers. It was easy to grow, very free flowering, and had large 7-inch flowers with a nice fragrance and lovely delicate texture. It had been imported in large quantities, so it was readily available and was not too expensive to acquire. Its flowering season made it a must for all Cattleya lovers, because without it, there were no Cattleya flowers after C. mossiae finished blooming in mid-May until Cattleya warscewiczii bloomed in mid-June.
Cattleya gaskelliana is native to Venezuela, where it grows as an epiphyte and lithophyte from 2,300 to 3,300 feet above sea level in the Eastern Coastal Mountain Range, the Cordillera de la Costa. It occurs in three Venezuelan provinces, northeastern Anzuategui, southern Sucre, and northern Monagas. Its natural habitats vary from tropical, humid cloud forests, to somewhat drier areas where it is forced to grow on rocks in nearly full sun. Unfortunately, it has been collected almost to extinction in some areas and is no longer as plentiful as it once was.
Most C. gaskelliana are light lavender in color with a slightly darker lip that often has a saddle-shaped purple blotch or splash in the center. Very few really dark forms have been found. When I first visited John Lager in Summit, New Jersey in the late 1940s, he showed me a fine dark C. gaskelliana his father had bought during the 1930s for $250 — a huge sum for a Cattleya plant during the Great Depression. The only other really dark clone I have seen belonged to Lawrence and Edith Myers in Elkins Park — also in the 1940s. The Myers clone was concolor dark purple with wide petals, good form and beautiful thin texture.
Because it had such thin substance, and because it flowered when greenhouses were often overheated by an intense June sun that usually shortened the life of its flowers, C. gaskelliana was not always popular with cut-flower growers in the United States. Its flowering season, however, was so important that large numbers were grown — even filling entire 30-foot x 100-foot greenhouses during the 1940s. As Cattleya hybrids were developed to provide late-May and early-June flowers, however, C. gaskelliana became the first victim of the hybrid rage, and it virtually disappeared from both commercial and hobbyist greenhouses. By 1960, there were almost none left in cultivation in the United States. Cattleya gaskelliana became another tragic loss in the history of the magnificent large-flowered Cattleya species.
Although jungle-collected plants of C. gaskelliana are seldom imported now, the species is still available as sib crosses from Venezuelan growers. Some of the fine old clones are also offered by specialists in the Cattleya species, such as Grezaffi Orchids in Melbourne, Florida and in private collections.
Each new generation of C. Bow Bells hybrids reminds us that C. gaskelliana is truly the Queen bee par excellence of the alba cattleyas, continuously recycling its genes and lending them to each new generation of larger and ever-more-beautiful white Cattleya hybrids — from Cattleya Bob Betts to Cattleya Pearl Harbor to Cattleya Tiffin Bells to Cattleya Mary Ann Barnett. Cattleya gaskelliana has contributed much to the coerulea-type Cattleya hybrids, and it is a rewarding plant to grow itself with its abundance of delightfully fragrant flowers that exhibit glistening delicate texture, and charming pastel colors — and they are all in full bloom as you read this article.
How to Grow Cattleya gaskellianaCATTLEYA gaskelliana is a vigorous, easy to grow, free-flowering plant. It will normally begin growing in the United States in early February and complete its growth by mid-May. It should be watered sparingly until the new growth is about 3 inches long. Then water should be increased until it is receiving heavy waterings as the growth matures. Always remember to allow the medium to dry out, however, between waterings, otherwise, if the roots are kept too wet, they may rot and die.
Cattleya gaskelliana is one of the Cattleya species that produces flowers as the growth is maturing. In other words, it does not produce a growth and then rest for a few months before flowering as do Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya trianaei. Like most other Cattleya species, C. gaskelliana needs lots of sun and air to grow and flower well. The night temperature should be 58 F–60 F and the day temperature 80 F–85 F.
Cattleya gaskelliana normally produces three to five flowers on a flower stem in mid-May in the United States. The flowers do not stay in bloom as long as C. trianaei or Cattleya schroederae and three weeks is normal. Once in flower, the plants should be kept in the coolest part of the greenhouse so the flowers will last longer. After blooming, the plants will sometimes make a second growth, which, unlike C. warscewiczii, does not seem to diminish its flower production the following year. Repot the plants only when you see new roots starting from the lead pseudobulb. — A.A. Chadwick.