Once upon a time there was a beautiful orchid named for an equally beautiful lady, a Roman Vestal Virgin called Laelia. The orchid was discovered in the Brazilian jungle by a Frenchman, M. Pinel who sent it to an orchid friend in Paris, M. Morel. When the plant bloomed, Morel thought the flowers were different from anything he had seen before and he packed them up and sent them across the English Channel to the renowned British botanist, John Lindley. Lindley examined the flowers and agreed they were different and in 1850, published a description of them as a new species on page 6 of the first volume of Paxton’s Flower Garden. He called the new species Laelia grandis because it had such large flowers.
During the 1850s, the horticultural community was often at odds with botanists on the classification of new orchids, and horticulturists were not happy with Lindley’s Laelia grandis. They felt it should be called “Cattleya grandis” and they tried to push it into the genus Cattleya for the rest of the 1800s. Despite some heroic efforts, however, the name Laelia grandis stuck to the orchid for the next 150 years and most people today still call it by that name despite recent efforts by a few botanists to push it into a new catch-all genus Sophronitis.
Laelia grandis is a delightful flower with ruffled petals that glisten in yellow and bronze, and a white lip adorned with radiating purple stripes. It has a full lip with no cuts in it and there is really no other flower quite like it in the orchid world. The plant is easy to grow, very free-flowering and has 4 or 5 five inch flowers on a flower spike. The flowers last in bloom 3 to 4 weeks. L. grandis blooms in late spring in the United States, but, unlike the large-flowered Cattleya species which it somewhat resembles, L. grandis flowers have no noticeable fragrance. The plant has a single leaf at the top of the pseudobulb and the flowers have 8 pollinia instead of the usual 4 in Cattleya which is why Lindley put the plant in the genus Laelia originally. L. grandis has very few color forms and most flowers have petals with varying shades of yellow and bronze and a lip with various amounts of purple lines. There is at least one variety that has greenish-yellow petals with no bronze color and a lip with almost no purple lines.
Laelia grandis is perhaps the rarest of the cattleya-like Laelias from Brazil and it has never been available in large quantities during its entire history. Although it entered the horticultural world in Morel’s greenhouse in 1849, The Gardeners’ Chronicle noted 15 years later in 1864 that they had not seen a plant of it in many years and were pleased to learn that Hugh Low & Co. had been able to find a few more plants to import. Warner and Williams in their magnificent Orchid Album in the late 1800s, however, lamented that L. grandis “is little known and extremely rare,” and the species is very rare indeed in orchid collections in the United States today.
Laelia grandis is native to the state of Bahia in southern Brazil and is considered to be a warm-growing member of the large-flowered Brazilian species. It grows in the top-most branches of very tall trees like the jequitiba – some over 80 feet high- where it is exposed to considerable sunlight. It is considered a rare plant even in its native country. L. grandis has often been confused with other Brazilian laelias and the larger, more flat-petaled L. tenebrosa was for many years considered to be a type of L. grandis. It was not until 1893 that Robert Allen Rolfe, the editor of the Orchid Review separated L. tenebrosa from L. grandis and made L. tenebrosa a new species in its own right. In a somewhat comical twist, a Brazilain, Hernani Urpia in 1953 reported that L. grandis was sometimes considered a variety of L. tenebrosa in Brazil and he wrote a long article in the January American Orchid Society Bulletin of that year offering proof that L. grandis was indeed a genuine species.
There are at least two known natural hybrids of L. grandis both of which have also been produced artificially in cultivation. Its hybrid with Cattleya amethystoglossa is called Laeliocattleya Pittiana, and with Cattleya warneri is called Lc Albanensis. Because orchid growers seem to have a strange fixation for flat-petal flowers, L. grandis has not been very popular as a parent in breeding hybrids. Its ruffled, sometimes twisted petals are just not gauche. Early breeders who made crosses just to see what would happen, did some work with L. grandis crossing it with several large-flowered Cattleya species like C. labiata, C.mossiae, C. schroederae and C. lawrenceana and a few important Laelias like L. purpurata and L. cinnabarina. Once they saw the results of crossing two great large-flowered Cattleya species like C. warscewiczii and C. mossiae, however, they lost interest in L. grandis.
Nature often hides her most beautiful treasures where people have trouble finding them, and the elusive Laelia grandis, atop its 80 foot tree in the Brazilian jungle, smiles at the sun from between the fluttering leaves of the tree, and looks out over its wilderness paradise, happy to be protected and free from the poaching hands of man.
How to Grow Laelia grandis:
Laelia grandis is in a group of Brazilian laelias that require higher then normal night temperatures. For the plant to grow at its best, the night temperature should be 65F and the plant will even do well at 70F at night. Day temperatures should be about 80 to 85F. Although it is considered a high-light plant, L. grandis grows well for me at normal light intensities used for plants like Cattleya warneri. L. grandis should receive lots of moving air and be allowed to dry out thoroughly between waterings. L. grandis begins growing in the late summer in the United States and will complete its growth during the late fall. After a rest period, it will flower in the late spring. It is normally a vigorous, trouble-free grower and produces 4 or 5 flowers on a flower spike when well grown. The 5 inch flowers last 3 to 4 weeks in bloom. Repot the plant only when it begins producing a flush of new roots from the lead pseudobulb.