The Sleeping Giant
Text and Images by A. A. Chadwick
One of the most popular orchids of the early 1800s was a charming large-flowered Cattleya species called Cattleya crispa. It was prized because it was so free-flowering and easy to grow at a time when orchids in general were considered difficult plants. It had fairly large, attractive flowers and a lovely fragrance. Best of all, it was available from commercial orchid houses. Unlike Cattleya labiata and Cattleya maxima that you could only read about, with C. crispa, you could actually buy the plant, put it in your greenhouse, grow it and enjoy the flowers.
Cattleya Crispa was first imported into England in 1826 by the Horticultural Society of London. It had been sent to the Society by Sir Henry Chamberlayne from Rio de Janeiro where it grew wild in the local mountain areas. It bloomed the year after it was imported in the stove house at the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden with five beautiful flowers and it was an immediate sensation. The famous English botanist, John Lindley, wrote a description of it in volume 14 (t 1172) of the Botanical Register for 1828. A picture of a red-lip variety by the artist Sydenham Edwards accompanied the description. Lindley described the plant as “Cattleya crispa, the curled-petaled Cattleya.” Lindley felt the crisping along the edges of the petals and lip was distinct enough and different enough to justify making C. crispa a new species.
Although C. Labiata had been imported eight years earlier in 1818 to much excitement and botanical hype, C. labiata was a very rare plant. Only one private grower, William Cattley, plus the Glasgow Botanic Garden, had the few C. Labiata plants that existed in Europe and no one knew where to get any more. The other known large-flowered Cattleya species, C. Maxima, only existed as dried specimens. There are no live plants at all. Commercial growers, however, knew where Rio de Janeiro was, and they had no trouble finding and importing C. crispa in large numbers and the plant became the favorite cattleya of the first generation of orchid growers.
Cattleya crispa grows naturally in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro and in the southern Minas Gerais where it is found growing on the branches of large trees and sometimes on rock outcroppings where natural forest still exists. It likes considerable sun, but its leaves and pseudobulbs do not normally show any purple tinting. Unlike Cattleya lobata, (formerly Laelia lobata), which often grows in similar areas, C. crispa is not found on vertical rock faces. It grows from 2,000 to 4,000 feet (650-1,300 meters) in areas that receive almost daily mists and rains during the growing season. In the winter, when it is dormant, it is at times exposed to low temperatures occasionally approaching frost.
Cattleya crispa is one of the showiest of the Brazilian catteylas. Although it does not have flowers as large and well shaped as Brazil’s most famous large-flowered species – C. labiata, Cattleya warneri and Cattleya purpurata – the flowers are produced in greater numbers so that the overall effect is often more impressive. Cattleya crispa normally has from five to seven flowers on an inflorescence, but can produce as many as 10 flowers on really well-grown plants. The flowers are 5-6 inches (12.7-15.2 centimeters) across and last in bloom over three weeks. Cattleya crispa flowers in midsummer in the United States and in February and March in its native Brazil.
Most varieties have white to light lavender-pink sepals and petals with a lavender lip that is hooked or rolled under at the tip. The lip can be very dark purple t times and there is also pink-lip varieties (horticulturally referred to as carnea forms). A particularly beautiful form is the famous and rare cultivar ‘Candidissima’. Other well-known cultivars include ‘Buchananiana’, which is larger and better shaped than normal, and which has a stunning dark purple lip. A painting of it by John Nugent Fitch was pictured in Plate 81 of The Orchid Album for 1883. The cultivar ‘Cauwelaertiae’ has sepals and petals tinged with greenish yellow and a predominately yellow lip. The first plant awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in England in 1872 was not surprisingly, given a Certificate of Cultural Commendation for its great abundance of flowers. The RHS also recognized a cultivar called ‘Superba’ with an Award of Merit (1892) and a First Class Certificate (1893); ‘Superba’ was larger and better shaped than ‘Cauwelaertiae’, with a dark crimson-purple lip. Generally speaking, light-colored forms come from areas adjacent to the Atlantic Coast, whereas darker-colored forms come from areas farther inland.
Cattleya crispa was on of the favorite orchids used by the first hybridizers, John Dominy and John Seden of James Veitch & Sons Ltd., in the early days of orchid breeding. Dominy is said to have crossed C. crispa and Cattleya dowiana and Cattleya mossiae; Seden’s cross between C. crispa and Cattleya warscewiczii, called Cattleya (Laeliocattleya) Nysa (1891) was considered “one of the finest products of orchid hybridizing.”
As late as 1923, the second president of the American Orchid Society, Fritz Eugene Dixon, thought so much of his cross between Cattleya lueddemanniana and C. crispa that he named it for his good friend and orchid authority, John E. Lager. As round flower shape became an overriding standard for fine cattleya hybrids, however, C. crispa ceased to be an important parent for breeding and it has seldom been used to make cattleya alliance hybrids since the 1950’s.
Like so many other Cattleya species, C. crispa has been the victim of endless botanical confusion over the past 160 years, which has often led to more than a little consternation on the part of horticulturists. Following John Lindley’s original description of the species in 1828 as a Cattleya, Lindley included the species as the first entry under Cattleya in his Magazine of Botany (5:5) in 1836. In 1842, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine published a detailed description (plate 3910), calling it the “Crisp-flowered cattleya” along with a picture of a stunning five-flowered spike of flowers. The Botanical magazine even said that C. crispa “may be among the most beautiful of a highly beautiful genus.”
Cattleya crispa was clearly one of the most popular large-flowered Cattleya species of the mid-1800s. It was a plant everyone grew and loved, so when botanist Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach lifted it out of the genus Cattleya and put it in Lindley’s new genus Laelia in 1853 because it had eight pollinia instead of the usual four, no one paid any attention to the change. The plant continued along happily in orchid circles as Cattleya crispa. As late as 1877, 24 years after Reichenbach made the change to Laelia, B.S. Williams in the fifth edition of his ever-present The Orchid-Grower’s Manual listed the plant as Cattleya crispa so growers would know what plant he was talking about. Warner and Williams were much less considerate of Reichenbach, however, in the second volume of their masterpiece. The Orchid Album, published in 1833 when they described a fine variety of C. crispa in plate 81. They said quite bluntly that they did not accept the change to Laelia: “We follow the original description of the species of the late Dr. Lindley, by retaining it in Cattleya.” It is interesting to note that although he established the genus Laelia based on eight pollinia, Lindley never described C. crispa as a Laelia in any of his works even though he said it had eight pollinia. Williams still showed C. crispa under the genus Cattleya in the seventh and last edition of The Orchid-grower’s Manual, published in 1894, and the whole horticulture world knew it only by that name.
Unfortunately for everyone, James Veitch tried to be politically correct when he published the first volume of his Manual of Orchidaceous Plants in 1887. Veitch ignored his vast experience growing the Cattleya species, and accepted the botanical classification set out by the reining botanists, George Bentham and Joseph Hooker, in their Genera Plantarum for the purpose of his book. Bentham and Hooker separated Cattleya and Laelia based on number of pollinia, and Veitch made no reference to C. crisp under the genus Cattleya in his book. He included it only under the genus Laelia. Veitch’s Manual was considered by many to be the most authoritative work on orchids in the 1890sand it doomed C. crispa to become Laelia crispa over the dead bodies of a lot of knowledgeable horticulturists. The ironic part of this story is that Veitch himself did not believe C. crispa belonged in the genus Laelia.
“that the two genera (Cattleya and Laelia) pass into each other by graduations so small as to render a separating character difficult, if not impossible to be found… and it is, therefore, much to be regretted that the distinguished authors of Genera Plantarum should have thought fit to still kept them distinct.”
As the world moved into the 20th century, more prominent botanical orchid authorities, including the late Carl Withner, continued to classify the large-flowered Brazilian species with eight pollinia such as C. crispa as Laelias despite their overwhelming similarity to the four-pollinia large-flowered Cattleya species. In 2000, C. crispa even suffered the brief indignity of being classified as a species of Sophronitis, which was unbelievable. Fortunately, the international nomenclature authorities using DNA analyses have now moved the Brazilian Laelias in general into the genus Cattleya and the species is now firmly C. crispa.
Cattleya crispa is not as popular in the United States today as it was in the early days of orchid growing in Europe. Many varieties have narrow petals that sometimes reflex, or fold backward, and this is not considered fashionable in orchid circles. Because it produces such a grand display of flowers, however, this species is still a lovely orchid and very rewarding to own. Cattleya crispa today is like a sleeping giant – a giant that dominated the early days of orchid growing when cattleyas were new to European horticulture and people tended to accept nature’s standards more than their own. In the early 1800’s C. crispa was pictured and written about more than the great large-flowered C. mossiae because it was so easy to grow and produced such a beautiful head of flowers. It was eclipsed in the mid-1900s by the craze for big, round cattleya hybrids, and the species has largely disappeared from cultivation in most collections. It now waits for a new generation of orchid growers who have a broader view of beauty than just round flowers to awaken it from slumber.