Cattleya lobata (Laelia)

The Smoke and Mirrors Cattleya

Shakespeare must have been a frustrated taxonomist when he wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” because only a taxonomist would suggest the possibility of giving a rose another name. Names are what we give plants so we all know what we are talking about. They are the everyday words that simplify our everyday life. I know what a rose is, and an apple and a pear, but I am beginning to wonder about some of the names taxonomists are inflicting on orchids these days.

Taxonomists have a penchant for changing the ancestral trees of plants so all the branches fit into a neat, logical framework. It is a useful scientific exercise, but too often spills over into the real world of commercial and hobby plant growing where it often causes frustration among hobbyists. Orchids are particularly vulnerable to botanical name changes because we use botanical names for orchids as common names. We have no roses, apples or pears in orchid parlance — which brings us to Laelia lobata.

Cattleya laelia lobata typical

Laelia lobata was first described as Cattleya lobata by the botantist John Lindley in 1848 in The Gardener’s Chronicle (pg. 403). The plant and flowers were so much like Cattleya labiata that Lindley even speculated in his comments that it might be a variety of C. labiata. Lindley had established the genus Cattleya in 1821 when he described the first species as C. labiata, but in 1848 it apparently never occurred to him how confusingly similar the names C. labiata and C. lobata were. The species had already been confused earlier when the British naturalist George Gardner in 1836 found L. lobata clinging to the rugged cliffs of the Organ Mountains in the Brazilian Province of Rio de Janeiro, and announced to the world he had discovered the lost C. labiata. Despite Lindley’s attempt to put all the eight-pollinia Cattleya species into his genus Laelia, orchid growers everywhere continued to call his eight-pollinia L. lobata C. lobata for the rest of the 1800s. In the 7th Edition of Williams’ The Orchid Grower’s Manual published in 1894. Williams describes only Cattleya lobata. There is no Laelia lobata. What happened next, however, was nothing short of bizarre.

James Veitch was one of the most renowned horticulturists and orchid experts of the late 1800s. He was an expert on the genera Cattleya and Laelia and was a strong advocate for returning plants like L. lobata to the genus Cattleya. In 1887, however, he made a major misstep. In that year, Veitch published the first book of his magnificient Manual of Orchidaceous Plants in which he described C. lobata as L. lobata. He did this to make his book conform to the accepted botanical thinking of the day, even though, in the case of the genus Laelia, he did not agree with it. In doing this, Veitch inadvertently became the first person to describe C. lobata as L. lobata, and it is ironic that Veitch, the one man more than any other who thought L. lobata should be a Cattleya is the man given credit today for the first botanical description of it as a Laelia. It makes you wonder about the rules of botanical nomenclature, where the priority of names is determined by when the name is validly published. The story does not end here, however. As the year 1999 rolled into the millennium 2000, the new field of DNA analysis showed conclusively that the Brazilian Laelias like L. lobata are botanically different from the Mexican Laelias. While this was an old idea revisited, it suddenly had the blessing of modern science, and it opened a Pandora’s box for the Brazilian Laelias. Laelia lobata has now been set adrift in the botanical rapids and could end up being renamed just about anything. I have always considered it to be a Cattleya, as it was originally described, and quite frankly I see no reason to describe a new genus for it now. In my opinion, we are getting to the point where the word “genus” is beginning to lose its meaning and is drifting into the concept of “species” and it remains to be seen whether a new genus is needed for every small deviation in plant characteristics. Only The story does not end here, however.

Laelia lobata is native to a limited area of Brazil from the vicinity of the city of Rio de Janerio southward to the north of the State of São Paulo. It is often found growing on rocks facing the ocean and fully exposed to the sun. Because of the difficulty of collecting it, L. lobata has never been in abundant supply on the commercial market, and as a result, it was nto attractive to the major orchid companies of Europe during the 1800s. The most famous of all orchid books, Lindenia and Reichenbachia, produced by Linden and Sander’s, respectively, have no painting of L. lobata or C. lobata and no reference to them. Williams’ The Orchid Grower’s Manual tells us that it was seldom seen at horticultural shows, but blames this on its shy blooming. The scarcity of the plant, however, was probably more important.

Laelia lobata has occasionally appeared in the literature under the name Laelia boothiana because the botanist H.G. Reichenbach in 1853 actually described it as a Laelia before anyone else. Since Lindley described it first in 1848 as C. lobata, the species name has botanical priority over boothiana — so botanically, L. boothiana is not a correct name for this orchid.

Laelia lobata has some lovely clones, several of which have received awards from the American Orchid Society. Perhaps the most beautiful is a pale lavender-pink concolor named ‘Jeni’, AM/AOS. An alba, ‘Horich’ also received an HCC, as did a rose-lavender ‘Future Look’.

Cattleya laelia lobata ‘Jeni’

Laelia lobata has not been used extensively in hybridizing, although it would seem to be a suitable parent for breeding with its lovely coloring, floriferousness and relatively small plant size. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was crossed with many of the large-flowered Cattleyas like C. labiata, Cattleya trianaei, Cattleya mendelii, Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya dowiana, and with other large-flowered Brazilian Laelias like Laelia crispa, Laelia tenebrosa and Laelia purpurata. The resulting hybrids, however, were not as attractive as other Cattleya and Laelia crosses and little breeding was done after that.

Laelia lobata hybridizes in the jungle with L. crispa to produce the natural hybrid Laelia ×wyattiana and with Cattleya intermedia to produce Laeliocattleya Amanda.

Like a production of the smoke and mirrors of a magic show, L. lobata first appeared as C. labiata, then it appeared as C. lobata. Then it became L. lobata — ushered there by a man who never thought it should be a Laelia. It is a perfect case of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, and one might expect, in the present botanical environment, it might disappear entirely at any time. This lovely, misunderstood flower, ignored by many growers because of its reputation as a shy bloomer, has shown a tenacity to survive in its natural habitat under some of the most rugged natural conditions, yet it struggles to retain its place in the artificial world of botanical nomenclature. It is now time to welcome it back to the place John Lindley prepared for it — a place with the large-flowered Cattleyas. — A.A. Chadwick has grown Cattleyas both commercially and as a hobbyist since 1943. 520 Meadowlark Lane, Hockessin, Delaware 19707

Growing Cattleya laelia lobata

Laelia lobata has the reputation of being a shy bloomer, but I have not found this to be true. It does like a good amount of sun and should be placed in the sunniest location in the greenhouse. It should not receive so much sun that the leaves turn excessively yellow in color. The normal light-green leaf color recommended for all Cattleyas is fine, along with normal Cattleya temperatures of 58 F (14. C) night and 85 F (29.5 C) day.

Some growers suggest allowing L. lobata to grow over the edge of the pot because they have observed the plant produces its best flowers then. You can accomplish the same thing by putting the plant in a larger pot so the second and third year's growths will be able to root in the pot instead of in the open air. Most plants resent being cut up and repotted and will produce a growth and flowers the year after they are repotted that are not as good as they will be in the next two or three years. Newly repotted plants need a little tender loving care after repotting. Pot the plant only when it begins sending out new roots from the front pseudobulb. Place it in a clay pot because clay pots breathe, while plastic pots do not. Spray the plant frequently, but water it only lightly. Give it just enough water to encourage the new roots to go down into the potting medium. Increase the water slowly until the roots fill the pot. Overwatering a newly repotted plant is a sure way to produce a water-logged medium that will rot the new roots.

Laelia lobata is a tough plant. It is quite resistant to rotting and will take a lot of cultural abuse, but if you take care of it, it will reward you with a reliable production of four or five flowers every year. It normally flowers in April and May in the United States and will stay in bloom about a month.
- A.A. Chadwick.

Monday, September 1, 2003 - 12:00