A gift from Merlin
One of the great things about Mother Nature is her eagerness to experiment with her many offspring to help them survive in an ever-changing world. Now and then she even encourages two closely related species to trespass on each other’s territory and in the process creates a natural hybrid between them.
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 mid 1800s was the great age of discovery for the large-flowered Cattleya species. The first species were found by private individuals and government workers living or traveling in South America who sent the plants back to horticultural friends in Europe. As the age progressed, however, most of the species were discovered by professional plant hunters working for large commercial orchid companies.
Deep in the tangled jungles of tropical Brazil, among the many wandering tributaries of the Amazon Basin, lies the fabled land of El Dorado. The appetites of the Spanish conquistadors for the elusive riches of this “Land of Gold,” was worth risking a kingdom — or even their lives — to find. For the plant hunters of the mid-1800s, El Dorado was the realm of stinging insects, biting ants, bloodsucking bats, swarms of flies, clouds of mosquitoes, malaria, dysentery and the promise of the golden treasure of a new Cattleya species.
Greenhouses just sparkle in July and August in the glare of the hot summer sun, and the landscape seems to radiate a yellow glow. Bathed in this golden embrace, the flowers of the great cattleya species, Cattleya dowiana hang like a yellow and burgundy necklace about the rays of the sun.
Cattleya dowiana is one of the most beautiful of the cattleya species and has been a treasure for collectors since its discovery in 1850. It is the only cattleya species of the Cattleya labiata group that has yellow sepals and petals, and with its dark crimson-purple lip veined with gold, it is magnificent.
When the Belgian orchid grower announced to the world in 1881 that his collectors in Colombia had discovered a new yellow-flowered Cattleya species, he set off a debate that has continued to this day.
The Rainbow Cattleya
John Rolfe was one of the giants of the orchid world during the late 1800s. He was one of the most knowledgeable and hardworking orchid botanists of his time, and was ultimately recognized for his accomplishments with Britain's highest honors, including the Victoria Medal of Honor and the Veitch Memorial Medal.